The Senate has approved wide-ranging energy legislation with a decidedly "green" emphasis, including provisions that aim to stimulate use of ethanol fuel, encourage more energy-efficient buildings and also set tougher vehicle fuel economy requirements.
Democrats hailed the measure, passed late on June 21 on a 65-27 vote, as a way to reduce petroleum consumption and improve energy efficiency. But they didn't get all that they wanted: Republicans were able to keep a package of conservation-oriented tax breaks and a renewable energy requirement for utilities out of the bill.
"We have a lot more to do," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters the day after the vote. "The fight's not over." But he added, "This is a big first step."
Attention now will turn to the House, where energy legislation has been moving more slowly than in the Senate. A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee approved six energy-related measures on June 20, but three passed by narrow margins.
Over all, the Senate bill concentrates mainly on regulatory action and new standards. It provides relatively little funding, and what money it does include would be in the form of authorizations, which would subject to annual appropriations.
For the construction industry, a prime focus will be the bill's provisions that apply to federal buildings. They include a mandated 30% cut in such facilities' energy consumption by 2015, something President Bush called for in an executive order issued in January. The legislation also would require new and renovated federal buildings to cut their consumption of fossil fuels. The reduction initially would be 50% compared with levels of similar buildings in 2003, and the cuts would rise by ten percentage points per year until 2030, when those buildings' fossil-fuel use would be eliminated.
The bill also calls for programs to trim operating costs of federally owned or leased buildings by 20% in five years, through efficiency gains in lighting, heating and cooling. Moreover, the bill would establish an "office of high-performance green buildings" at the General Services Administration that would promote not only energy efficiency, but also air quality and other health-related aspects of federal facilities.
Going beyond federal buildings, the legislation also calls for new efficiency standards for lighting, heating and cooling equipment as well as refrigerators, clothes washers and other home appliances.
One of the most contentious issues was vehicle fuel efficiency standards. "This was a big battle," notes Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) "It even divided our own ranks." Michigan's two Democratic senators, Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, strong allies of the auto industry, fought against the bill's fuel-economy provision.
But in the end, the Senate approved an amendment offered by commerce committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) that would increase fleet-wide fuel economy standards from the current 25 miles per gallon to 35 mpg by the 2020 model year. The 25-mpg mark has been in place for more than 20 years.
That was less stringent than the provision in the bill as it went to the Senate floor, which had the 35 mpg mandate, but with the added requirement of increasing the fuel economy level by a further 4% per year after 2020. Nevertheless, at least one auto industry advocate, Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) was unhappy with the outcom, terming the economy standards in the Stevens plan "disastrous."
Among provisions that weren't in the final Senate bill were a $32.1-billion package of tax breaks for such things as renewable energy and hybrid vehicles. But opponents, who objected to the proposed offsetting tax increases on the oil and gas industry, were able to prevent the tax package from being included in the version the Senate approved.
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) called the tax provisions "unfinished business," and areas to which lawmakers will have to return.
The bill also calls for the Dept. of Energy to do research on ways to capture and store carbon dioxide, including several tests of geological containment of CO2. In addition, it would prohibit oil "price gouging" when the President declares an energy emergency.
In addition, it contains a directive to boost the amount of motor fuel and heating fuel derived from ethanol to 36 billion gallons by 2022. Current capacity is 6.3 billion gal., according to the Renewable Fuels Association.