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Does Bush Really Back New Energy, Environment Policy?

Amid all the partisan rancor that besets Washington, it’s worth noting that something remarkable happened last month: The Senate passed a broad-gauge energy bill by a vote of 85-12. Whether it makes it into law depends on President Bush.

The bill represents what amounts to an emerging national consensus on energy and the environment — that to become more energy-independent and to combat climate change, the United States needs to “do it all.”

[IMGCAP(1)]That is, we need to produce more domestic oil and gas in the short run, but also conserve energy and invest in cleaner and more efficient alternatives that could displace fossil fuels in coming decades — not to mention restoring U.S. leadership in cutting-edge technology.

While Congress and Bush have been wrangling about energy for five years — and Bush has largely tilted toward the oil and gas sectors — outsiders have helped spark the new consensus. They include General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt and broadly bipartisan alliances such as the Energy Future Coalition and Set America Free, which include everyone from defense hawk Frank Gaffney to liberal former Sen. Tim Wirth (D-Colo.).

Immelt appeared in May at George Washington University along with environmental activist Jonathan Lash of the World Resources Institute to announce a plan called “ecoimagination” — a doubling of GE’s research budget for energy and environmental technologies and plans to produce clean and efficient new engines, turbines and plants that will bring in $20 billion in revenues by 2010.

Set America Free, along with the National Resources Defense Council, a leading environmental group, is lobbying Congress to spend $12 billion in five years to cut oil use in half by 2025.

The Energy Future Coalition thinks spending just $1 billion more over five years could produce alternative fuels — it favors ethanol and other biofuels — that could potentially reduce oil imports by 25 percent in 20 years and significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Even Bush is newly aboard the bandwagon, at least rhetorically. He said recently that he accepts that global temperatures are rising and that human activity is responsible for the increase. Once a strict oil-and-gas man, Bush has started touting hydrogen fuel cells, biodiesel, clean coal and even solar power as energy sources for the future.

In a speech last month, he said, “Can you imagine walking down a road here in the farmlands of Maryland, you see a guy growing soybeans, you say, ‘Thanks, buddy, for making us less dependent on foreign sources of oil?’”

He also said, “I think it will be cool if your young son is able to take a driver’s test in a hydrogen-powered automobile that has got zero emissions, and at the same time will make us less dependent on hydrocarbons which we have to import from foreign countries.”

But Bush faces a severe test of his dedication to new energy sources as the Senate and House try to reconcile their hugely conflicting energy bills. If Bush puts his clout behind the House bill, which is heavily skewed toward oil and gas subsidies, it will make a mockery of his claims to favor a new era in energy technology.

For sure, the administration has been stingy about funding energy research and development. Its budget called for $6.7 billion in tax breaks for energy development. The House bill calls for $8 billion, while the Senate bill contains $16 billion.

In one sense, there shouldn’t be too much reason for cheering when Congress decides to spend a lot of money to get something done, especially through subsidies. You could call it easy bipartisanship when the two parties unite to throw big money at something, whether it’s American farmers or seniors.

On the other hand, it will be a triumph if America finally has a vigorous energy policy after years of wrangling and stagnation. Bush proposed a policy in 2001, skewed heavily toward traditional sources. But he hasn’t made it a top priority until this year, impelled largely by politically unpopular gasoline prices that won’t be affected by passage of any new bill.

Credit for the Senate bill largely goes to New Mexico’s two Senators, Republican Pete Domenici and Democrat Jeff Bingaman, the chairman and ranking member on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who worked out a package that achieves much (though not all) of what both parties had been seeking.

Missing from the bill is any mandate on the auto industry to raise fuel efficiency standards, which could have been an impetus for U.S. manufacturers to knuckle down and try to leapfrog Japanese and European carmakers in fuel-saving technologies.

Environmentalists also protest that the Senate defeated a mandatory cap on carbon emissions proposed by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.). But the fact is that no one is sure how the United States could meet the limits.

Instead, the chamber passed a sense-of-the-Senate resolution sponsored by Bingaman saying that the U.S. one day will cap emissions — putting the body squarely on record that carbon emissions are responsible for climate change.

A member of the Senate energy panel, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), dubbed the Senate’s approach “the new realism: conservation, increased natural gas supplies, including from overseas; relaunching nuclear power and coal gasification.”

The House-Senate conference poses a big test for both Bush and the Republican party. They can stick with old fuels and limited action on the climate front, or else embrace the new consensus.

If they choose the past, the Democrats are waiting — and they have new allies in Immelt and the various bipartisan coalitions.

When the Democrats’ 2008 presidential frontrunner, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), spoke in Aspen, Colo., on July 10, she got media notice for likening Bush to Alfred E. Neuman, Mad magazine’s “What, Me Worry?” character.

But the substance of her speech was advocacy for robust scientific research and other steps to regain America’s technological edge. Democrats generally have been behind the curve in developing positive alternatives to Bush policy. But when it comes to energy, Bush is behind. The Senate has given him a chance to catch up.

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