House Energy Debate Planned for Next Week

E&E Daily (subs. req’d) reports that the fireworks will be next week. The fuel efficiency debate will probably be front and center. Here are details:

House Democratic leaders have decided to wait one more week to bring energy legislation to the floor, leaving more time for behind-the-scenes maneuvering on auto mileage standards and provisions related to oil and gas drilling in the West.

Sources on and off Capitol Hill say the leadership plans to bring their long-discussed energy plan to the full chamber the week before lawmakers begin their August break. And while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has yet to give the green light to a vehicle efficiency debate on the floor this summer, both sides are marshalling their forces in anticipation of a showdown vote on corporate average fuel economy.

In recent weeks the House debate has shifted away from whether or not to boost CAFE and toward which one of the two main proposals the chamber should adopt.

On one side, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) continues building support for a proposed CAFE standard of 35 miles per gallon for light trucks and passenger cars by 2018 — roughly the same standard contained in Senate energy legislation that passed last month.

Yet a bipartisan faction aligned with the auto industry is trying to move the House toward a competing plan sponsored by Reps. Baron Hill (D-Ind.) and Lee Terry (R-Neb.). Their plan would keep separate standards for passenger cars and light trucks but require that the average standard for the overall vehicle fleet sold in the United States be no less than 32 mpg and no greater than 35 mpg by 2022.

Supporters of both proposals late last week said they are picking up more and more votes for their bill, though it remains unclear whether either one has support from a majority of the House.

Environmental groups have launched an attack on the Hill-Terry plan, attempting to argue against its pre-emption language that could block California and other states from setting their own greenhouse gas regulations for vehicles. Similar language in a CAFE plan backed by Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) created a firestorm and forced the committee to postpone consideration of the issue until the fall.

Several groups circulated a memo late last week claiming the Hill-Terry bill could both overturn the recent Massachusetts v. EPA decision on climate change and block California’s effort to set its own greenhouse gas regulations for vehicles. Specifically, the memo states that by directing the Transportation Department to set both a miles-per-gallon standard and grams-of-carbon-dioxide-per-mile standard, it opens the door for the Bush administration to argue it overturns the Supreme Court.

Moreover, the Hill-Terry bill blocks pending litigation from states and environmental groups over standards DOT has already set for 2008 to 2011 for light trucks.

“The question of state’s rights is absolutely critical and also really is the ability of EPA to operate freely in response to the Supreme Court,” said Frank O’Donnell of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch. “To the extent that this bill could take authority from the EPA, it’s perceived in tampering with response to the Supreme Court case.”

Shortly after environmentalists circulated their argument, the offices of Hill and Terry released a counter-memo claiming the suggestion that their bill would pre-empt state regulations is “unfounded.”

“[The bill] takes no position on whether the existing CAFE law pre-empts states from adopting certain emission standards,” stated the memo. “This issue is being litigated in two different courts, and those cases are unaffected by the bill. Do not be fooled by third party group rhetoric.”

Still, environmentalists argue that any language perceived as tampering with states’ rights in the climate change arena could draw enough opposition to doom the bill. “That’s potentially very toxic language,” O’Donnell said.

Indeed, when pre-emption language appeared in a CAFE bill floated by Dingell earlier this year, it drew strong opposition from Pelosi in addition to other liberal Democrats. Pelosi took the unusual step of stating a position on legislation that had not even been through a committee markup.

Gloria Bergquist, spokeswoman with the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said she did not believe the argument from environmental groups would throw up a roadblock to the Hill-Terry bill. She noted it has picked up nearly 100 cosponsors within just a few days of its introduction.

The Markey bill has more than 150 cosponsors, but Bergquist argued the debate has shifted with the introduction of another proposal that may be more acceptable to lawmakers from both sides of the aisle. “In the past, it was Markey or nothing,” she said.

Bergquist insists the Markey bill does not have the votes neccessary to win on the House floor. She expects Markey to try to press the leadership for a vote regardless of whether they are assured of a majority, but Pelosi is more likely to punt the issue to the fall, Bergquist said.

“[Markey] may want to vote even if he loses, but others don’t,” she said. “For that reason, I just don’t think it’s going to come up.”

But Dan Becker, an expert with the Sierra Club who has been tracking the CAFE debate, said although there has been no definitive decision from the Democratic leadership on whether to bring up CAFE, environmentalists are pressing for a vote on the summer energy package.

“We want to be on the bill that’s going to go to the president … and that’s the energy bill,” Becker said. “I’m not sure that the climate change bill will or that the president will sign it,” he added, a reference to Dingell’s plan to address CAFE in separate global warming legislation his committee will write later this year.

“We want to be on the train that goes to the station,” Becker said.

Becker also predicted that when the leadership does finally call for a CAFE vote, the Markey bill would prevail. “When it comes up for a vote, we will win,” he said.

Either way, the CAFE issue would remain alive even if the House sidesteps it in the coming debate. Senate passage of a CAFE boost leaves the issue ripe for discussion in a House-Senate conference committee.

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