By Dave Williams
ATLANTA - Environmental advocates were thrilled a year ago when Democrats captured control of Congress after a dozen years out of power.
But they are less than enthusiastic over the long-awaited energy bill the new Democratic majority passed last week before calling it quits for the year.
The Energy Independence and Security Act, signed into law by President Bush last Wednesday, significantly raises motor-vehicle mileage standards, a step Republicans had long resisted.
But it doesn't set a target for increasing America's use of renewable energy sources, a goal most Democratic presidential candidates support.
"It's a mixed bag," said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Knoxville, Tenn.-based Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
"The United States finally is pushing the auto industry to accept what's long overdue. ... [But] we're not cleaning up the old dirty power plants or transitioning to renewables in a big way."
Under the bill, auto makers will have to boost the fuel economy of cars and light trucks, including SUVs, from 25 miles per gallon to an industry average of 35 mpg by 2020. That's a whopping 40 percent increase.
Patty Durand, director of the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club, said it's a step that's long overdue.
"We were really happy because fuel standards have been raised for the first time since the '70s," she said. "That's a major step forward."
During a speech on the House floor before last week's vote, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said raising the mileage standard will save the average driver $700 to $1,000 per year while reducing America's dependence on foreign oil.
"Whether we're thinking as consumers ... or we're thinking of our national defense and national economy, this is as personal as each and every one of our consumers [and] as global as the planet," Pelosi said.
Not only will cars have to get better mileage. The legislation also will change the fuel Americans put into their vehicles.
It requires the production of 36 billion gallons of alternative fuels by 2022. Of that amount, 15 billion gallons is to come from corn-based ethanol and 21 billion from ethanol produced using materials other than corn.
Murray Campbell, president and chairman of First United Ethanol, which is building a corn-based ethanol plant in Camilla, said the bill will be a boon for Georgia.
Just last month, Colorado-based Range Fuels broke ground in Soperton on the nation's first plant that will produce cellulosic ethanol out of wastes from the state's huge timber industry.
"It's a great win for Georgia," Campbell said. "We can grow corn. We can grow a bunch of stuff for the oils to produce biodiesel. And we can certainly grow timber."
The legislation also gave environmentalists reason to cheer by setting new energy efficiency requirements for household appliances and government buildings.
But environmental groups expressed disappointment with the rest of the bill's provisions governing the use of electricity.
The original House version of the measure set a target requiring the power industry to obtain 15 percent of the nation's electricity from renewable sources by 2020.
To help reach that goal, the House bill also included incentives aimed at encouraging the development of wind, solar and geothermal energy technology. Those subsidies were to be financed by raising taxes on oil companies.
But the Senate dropped both provisions from the version of the bill it passed, and the House went along.
Smith blamed Southeastern utilities, particularly Atlanta-based Southern Co., for influencing Southern senators to oppose the push for greater reliance on renewable energy. Power companies in the region rely primarily on heavy-polluting, coal-burning plants.
"Southern Co., led the charge and they were unabashed in their lobbying," Smith said. "They keep trying to find what's wrong with [renewable energy] technology rather than being leaders in developing it."
Wind not viable
Southern Co., spokeswoman, Valerie Holpp, said it would have been unfair to require the utility to produce more renewable energy in a region that isn't conducive to the technology.
Southern officials have long argued that the Southeast - unlike the prairies of Kansas, Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle - doesn't have enough consistent wind to make building wind turbines a viable option.
"Southern Co., has long said that renewable energy should play an important role, and we'll certainly continue our efforts to develop more renewable resources," Holpp said. "[But] a one-size-fits-all approach would simply drive up customer costs."
Some congressional Democrats expressed disappointment that the legislation isn't strong enough.
But U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Grantville) said Democratic leaders needed to get the bill enacted so they could show at least some success in what otherwise has been a difficult first year for the new majority.
While Democrats did raise the minimum wage and reduce rates on loans for college students during 2007, they failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation, boost spending on children's health insurance, or link further funding of the war in Iraq to a timetable for troop withdrawal.
"The Democrats had to have something to pass, so they basically caved in to the president and House and Senate Republicans," said Westmoreland, who voted against the measure. "It's really a no-energy energy bill."
But Campbell said there's no overestimating the value of the new fuel economy standards the legislation sets in reducing America's importation of oil from other countries, many situated in volatile parts of the world.
"I think the bill is good for the country," he said.