Energy debate moves to House

Big increases in fuel efficiency, requiring renewable energy purchases could be two top items on agenda.

By Steve Hargreaves, staff writer

NEW YORK ( -- Debate on a broad range of energy proposals is set to begin in the House of Representatives this week, a month after the Senate passed a big increase in vehicle efficiency standards.

Whether the House will vote on its own fuel efficiency standards is unclear, and will be perhaps the most watched item in the legislation.

Two proposals are currently under serious consideration.

The more stringent one is from Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass. Markey's bill shoots for an increase in Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards to 35 miles per gallon (mpg) by 2018 from the current 27.5 mpg standard. Unlike current standards, it does not have a lower requirement for most pickups and SUVs.

Markey's proposal is similar to the one passed in the Senate, which requires 35 miles per gallon by 2020. The Senate version was strongly opposed by the auto industry and lawmakers from states with auto factories, who claimed it would be too costly and cripple the already struggling domestic auto sector.

A competing measure -introduced by Reps. Baron Hill, D-Ind., and Lee Terry, R-Neb., and supported by the auto industry - calls for cars to reach 35 mpg by 2022 and trucks to reach 32 mpg.

But it's possible neither proposal will make it to the floor for a vote, and the House will then just work off the Senate's version. Whatever emerges from the House will most likely go to conference with the Senate package before being sent to President Bush.

Not voting on its own CAFE standard would eliminate the risk of Markey's stronger proposal failing in a vote, but it would likely mean the Senate's version would get watered down during conference.

Late last week, speculation swirled over what would happen.

"I think CAFE is still on the table," said Karen Wayland, legislative director for Natural Resources Defense Council. But she was far from certain it would be Markey's exact bill, adding "Next week is going to have some late nights."

Another closely watched item will be if the House passes a renewable electricity standard, which basically requires utilities to buy a certain percentage of their power from renewable sources. The idea is to help foster renewable technologies by providing a stable market for their power.

A House staffer said it's likely a proposal from Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Todd Platts, R-Pa., requiring utilities to buy 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020 will be introduced during floor debate.

A similar though less ambitious measure failed in the Senate after heavy lobbying from Southeastern utilities, who say their region is less suited for wind power - the main source of new utility-scale renewable energy.

Other measures expected during House floor debate include extending the time frame the government has to review applications to drill on public lands, a proposal to eliminate some oil industry tax breaks and direct that money to renewable energy companies, and possibly a mandate to use more biofuels.

With the Democrats now in control of Congress, environmentalists are hoping for the best.

'I'm pretty optimistic we'll get a good package out of the House," said Anna Aurilio, Washington director for U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

Debate is expected to begin by midweek, although a specific day has not been chosen.  Top of page