WASHINGTON — In 1975, we were “born to run” in more fuel-efficient cars, using supposedly much less gas than Bruce Springsteen’s archetypal adolescents did during their chrome-wheeled, fuel-injected escapes from the working-class towns he sang of on his mega-hit album that year.

The elongated Chevys of Springsteen’s lyrics are mostly gone from the roads, but the 1975 fuel-economy standards set by a Congress that was reeling from the political and economic fallout caused by the 1973 OPEC oil embargo remain. Little, if anything, about American life has remained unchanged over the past 32 years, except that we now use many more gallons of gasoline to drive larger SUVs and travel longer distances to work, while heating and cooling expansive new homes.

Still, the old fuel-economy standards lived on, protected by the auto industry, its unions and the oil industry, in obstinate partnership with their allies in Congress. But two signal political developments this year have changed the dangerous myopia that refused to acknowledge the environmental and national security threats from our unquenchable thirst for oil.

First was the election of a Democratic Congress, especially the turnover in the House, which brought younger lawmakers to office. To them, global warming is no unproved theory. It is a generational cause. They also came to political maturity as the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Iraq war ripped away the blinders — or should have — that for too long kept the nation oblivious to the security threat from overdependence on foreign oil.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Californian as attuned to the environmental threat as those who previously ran the House were to the pleadings of the energy industry, considers global warming to be a defining issue. In a remarkable display of political spine and tactical expertise, she finally forced Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the longest-serving member of the House and the most ardent protector of the auto industry, to accept reality and vote for a tough, comprehensive energy measure that included raising the corporate average fuel economy standards (CAFE) from an average of 25 miles per gallon to 35 miles per gallon by 2020.

The second stunning political turn came at the White House, when President Bush announced he would back some version of higher fuel-economy standards. Only the Senate still seems comfortable in its role as an impediment to necessity. There, Republicans last week mustered enough votes to block the House energy measure from passage.

Yet remarkably, no one is willing to pronounce that we have taken another turn onto the dead-end street of outmoded energy policy. The consensus instead is that those aspects of the legislation Republicans find most objectionable — naturally, a rollback of tax breaks for the oil industry is among these — may be stripped out.

The giant leap that’s taken 32 years to prepare for, the tougher fuel-economy standards, may well pass on its own and even be signed into law by a president who has until now rejected both facts and common sense on climate change and energy policy.

“This would be a groundbreaking thing for the Congress to do,” says Michelle Robinson, director of the clean vehicles program for the Union of Concerned Scientists. Her organization estimates that raising the CAFE standards to 35 miles per gallon would save 1.2 million barrels of oil per day, or about half of what the United States now imports from Persian Gulf countries. “We all now look back on 1975 as a watershed moment. If we get this through Congress and Bush puts his signature on it, I think we’ll look back on this and see it as a really important step for the country.”

Well, at least a crucial first baby step. Former Vice President Al Gore, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on Monday for his insistent preaching about the danger of global warming, called upon the world to act with “the urgency and resolve that has previously been seen only when nations mobilized for war.” Gore, once a senator himself, knows too well that the chamber rarely rouses itself to such a pace. Its languor is most acute when it considers those topics on which the public good is measured against pressure from industry lobbyists and campaign donors.

The most we can expect from an energy bill is a belated acknowledgment that three decades are too long to stick with a mileage standard that drives us deeper into a ditch. Honestly, beginning the climb out would be quite good enough.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group


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