Driving to the brink

Happy Fourth of July, y'all! They don't tell you this in history class, but after the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia 231 years ago this very week, Benjamin Franklin turned quietly to John Adams.

"Someday, if we win our freedom, I predict we will develop into a mighty power capable of sending millions of men across the globe in great war machines to kill and capture whole nations of Mohammedans."

Adams, who was less of a free spirit, frowned. "Will we take from them the foul-smelling black ooze under their sands, and use it to power our war machine? Will we then bring it home to burn with abandon and pollute the fresh air we breathe with hydro-carbons?" Seeing Franklin nod, he sighed with relief.

"Our cause is just, then. We shall prevail."

Well, that is then and this is now, and two centuries later, the heirs to the Founding Fathers' proud and selfless tradition are, clearly, the Michigan delegation to the current Continental Congress.

For the domestic auto industry, this is Valley Forge.

The car companies are hemorrhaging money. Most Americans believe the Japanese machines are better and last longer. Those in the Congress not from the land of camshafts are no longer very sympathetic to an industry that has cried wolf far too often, failed to clean up its act or think ahead or outside the radiator, and has let hundreds of thousands of workers go.

Democrats like Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi from places like San Francisco seem more interested in clean air, saving the atmosphere and achieving energy independence than in letting the car companies produce all the gas-guzzling Hummers they can sell to spoiled and wasteful consumers.

The main issue was something called CAFE, or Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, which have nothing to do with a double latte at Starbucks. The new energy bill, which began in the Senate, says that by the year 2020 all vehicles need to average 35 miles per gallon fleetwide. (The standard now is 27.5 mpg)

Corporate Detroit didn't like that. They never do. Every time Congress considers raising CAFE standards, the automakers wail and howl and say that higher targets are impossible and would cost too much to attain and favor the nassssty Japanese who make better cars and don't play fair.

And in the past, whenever the tree huggers and sandal-wearers started making some progress winning hearts and minds, the Michigan delegation went to work, twisted arms, blustered about jobs ... and mostly got their way.

Not this time.

Even though U.S. Sen. Carl Levin is now one of the most powerful dudes in Congress, even though he activated Debbie Stabenow, even though their Democrats are once again in the majority, the Senate slapped them down. The energy bill passed 65-27. The CAFE target remained 35 mpg.

However, the bill still has to get through the House, where its first stop will be the Energy and Commerce Committee, led by U.S. Rep. John Dingell, D-Dearborn, aka "the truck." Twenty years ago, he would have taken such a bill and scheduled hearings on Alpha Centuri right after Jesus came back, and that woulda been that.

Now it is a different world. Dingell has said he isn't going to hold hearings until the fall. But he can't stall the energy bill much beyond that. Levin did score one minor victory in the Senate, namely, getting his colleagues to drop a further requirement to toughen the standards by another 4 percent a year after 2020.

You can make the case that there ought to be different standards for cars and trucks; this bill lumps all vehicles together. Getting different standards for large, nonrecreational trucks might be a sensible cause worth tackling.

Perhaps Dingell, too, could get the CAFE standards rolled back a bit. But you know what? As a proud son of Michigan, I think he shouldn't even try.

For one thing, the age of the dinosaurs is over.

Further waves of smart, fuel-efficient foreign cars and trucks from China and elsewhere are on their way. We need to be ready to compete, and building more Lincoln Navigators or other similar gas-guzzling atrocities doesn't do it.

But there are two other features of this bill that are far worse for us than the CAFE standards, features that have received relatively little attention.

First of all, this energy bill insanely boosts the mandate for ethanol use from 7.5 billion gallons five years from now to 36 billion gallons by 2022.

That's seven times as much ethanol as is being used now! Ethanol, honest scientists will tell you, is a gigantic hoax that solves nothing.

What this bill will do is drive up the cost of food. What it won't do is make much dent at all in our dependence on foreign oil. If every acre of corn in the country were used for ethanol, it would replace only about 12 percent of our oil consumption. Quintupling production makes no sense ... unless you are a mighty corn-growing conglomerate like Archer Daniels Midland.

Yes, they stand to make a lot of money from ethanol, whether it makes any sense or not. And they contribute to political candidates too. (I am sure none of that is why the energy bill calls for devoting resources to this boondoggle.)

There's yet another provision of this energy bill that has been talked about even less and which is potentially even more harmful. There was originally an amendment that would have provided $32 billion in tax incentives over the next decade to alternative energy producers, the people who really are the hope of the future. But the same Republicans who are hot for ethanol completely killed all funding for alternative energy. Why? Big Oil wanted them to! The package would have stripped the oil companies of tax incentives they don't need anymore, what with the sky-high gas prices and all-time record profits they are pocketing.

Greed is good indeed. Gentlemen John Dingell, who was in Congress literally before tail fins, could do the coming generations a big favor, and bring most or all of that alternative energy funding right back. Big Oil will whine.

The car companies, who never know what is good for them, will hate it, but, as has frequently been the case since 1955, Dingell will have helped them again, this time by helping to drag them, screaming and kicking, into the future.


Factory Farm Update: Last week I wrote about how Republicans in the Michigan Senate had passed a bill to make it easier for the hells on earth called CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations,) better known as factory farms, to pollute and endanger our water supply.

Now one of the better angels of the Legislature, State Sen. Ray Basham (D-Taylor) has offered a package of bills that would regulate these "corrugated metal monstrosities that belch manure stench into the air and leak waste into our land and water."

As of now, it is unlikely that the leadership of the GOP-controlled Senate will even let these bills come up for a vote. But someone needs to introduce Basham's package into the House, which is controlled by the Democrats, pronto.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]
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