Environmental Reforms: A Tough Task for Lawmakers

A year ago, when Democrats were in the minority on the Hill, they were happy to bash GOP lawmakers for their failure to take global warming seriously. Now, having won control of both the House and the Senate, Dems are finding out that legislating environmental regulations is trickier than it looks.

Senate leaders introduced flagship energy legislation on Monday in a bid to curb America’s insatiable appetite for foreign oil. The bill would raise the average passenger car’s fuel efficiency to 35 miles per gallon by 2020, boost biofuel consumption from 8.5 billion gallons next year to 36 billion gallons in 2012, and require greater energy efficiency in everything from light bulbs to kitchen appliances.

So far, so good. Sure, some greens worry the new rules don’t go far enough—the biofuel targets are lower than those set by Bush in his State of the Union address, for example—while others are skeptical about treating green policy as a quick fix for energy security rather than an important goal in its own right. But with Democrats set to spend the next two weeks tweaking and polishing the bill, it’s a decent starting point.

The real concern is that lawmakers may dilute the bill until it does more harm than good. Aides say amendments are piling up “like bunnies in the spring” as senators seek to whittle down measures that offend their states’ interests. Coal-state Democrats are pushing to make liquified coal—a filthy, non-renewable energy source—count towards biofuel targets. Other smokestack-state senators plan to weaken the bill by exempting automakers from fuel efficiency measures altogether.

And the blue-on-blue infighting isn’t limited to the Senate. Down the corridor, House Democrats are squaring off over climate change measures due to be considered next month. Michigan congressmen are fighting to give automakers the right to practically pick and choose which regulations they sign up to. And even worse, they’re trying to prevent trailblazing states like California from imposing stricter efficiency regulations than those mandated by federal agencies.

There’s little chance that Democratic leaders will allow anyone to shoot down California’s green revolution. Still, the very attempt represents a pointed warning shot, fired by lawmakers whose loyalty lies not with environmentalists, but with the blue-collar voters and industry donors who helped them win their seats. Winning control of Congress has given Democrats a chance to set the agenda, but if they want to pass meaningful environmental reforms, they’re still going to have a fight on their hands.

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