Monday, October 08, 2007

The Dingell Plan

Anyone looking for hints about how the Congress will address the discrepancies between the Senate and House versions of energy legislation and tackle the equally complex problem of our response to climate change should read the Wall Street Journal's extensive interview with Representative John Dingell (D-Mich.) As Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee of the House of Representatives, he will have enormous input into the process, and as the Journal points out, he also reflects the middle ground between the status quo and those who see the need for radical changes in the way we produce and consume energy. If Mr. Dingell's primary goal is ensuring the continued prosperity of American industry through the transition ahead, that could be our best guarantee for an approach to climate change that is both effective and cost-efficient.

Mr. Dingell seems to prefer making the costs of reducing greenhouse gas emissions explicit to the public, rather than burying them within wholesale prices via a national cap & trade mechanism. Cents per gallon of fuel would be a lot more noticeable than dollars per ton of emissions. There are good arguments on both sides--I generally come down in favor of cap & trade over a direct carbon tax--but the kind of blended approach hinted at in the interview could have a lot of advantages over either alternative alone. He also wants to stretch out the stricter fuel economy regulations passed by the Senate (35 mpg by 2020) to give US automakers time to find the mix of vehicles and technologies that will work for US consumers. Even if the US auto industry has already wasted a lot of time and false starts in that direction, exporting the remainder of it to South Korea and China would only reduce the US government's leverage on the problem.

It's significant that Mr. Dingell appears somewhat at odds with his party's leadership on many of these issues. The pending shifts in our national politics are setting up a configuration that could resemble that of the mid-1960s or late 1970s, when many of the most important debates occurred across the fault lines within the Democratic Party, rather than between the two parties. Mr. Dingell is a veteran of those periods, and his long experience and present vantage point should enable him to work across these coalitions and put his stamp on legislation enacting tougher fuel economy standards and a stronger US response to climate change.

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