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Will congressional Democrats pass climate-change legislation?

"Time is running out, and we need to move forward on this," Senator Barbara Boxer declared in a conference call with reporters last week, referring to global warming. The California Democrat will take over as chair of the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee in January, and she has already vowed to make climate change a top priority, reversing a decade of inaction by congressional Republicans. (James Inhofe, the current chair, is famous mostly for calling global warming a "hoax" and blocking bipartisan efforts to limit carbon emissions in the United States.)

With the United Nations set to release a new climate report this spring offering yet more evidence that the planet is heating up due to man-made greenhouse gases, and with Democrats in control of Congress, momentum is finally favoring those who want Americans to take climate change seriously. A shift would be long overdue: A recent study by Climate Action Network Europe found that, of the 56 top carbon dioxide-emitting countries in the world, the United States ranked fifty-third in steps to address global warming (only China, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia did worse).

The White House will almost certainly oppose any climate-change legislation coming out of Congress over the next two years, and remains the single biggest obstacle on this front. But Democrats could still pass a bill and dare the president to veto it--or, perhaps, force Bush to compromise. That is, if they can get something passed. And that may depend largely on a powerful Michigan Democrat allied with the auto industry. For decades, John Dingell has used his position as ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee to fend off legislation that threatens U.S. carmakers. Ironically, for a Democrat whose environmental credentials are generally solid, Dingell may emerge as the major sticking point in Congress for strong climate-change legislation.

Those paying close attention to the global-warming debate in the late '90s might be forgiven for confusing John Dingell with, say, James Inhofe. As Bill Clinton and Al Gore were trying to convince the Senate to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, Dingell emerged as one of the fiercest critics of the accord, calling it "the most asinine treaty I've ever seen." Nor was he swayed by the science connecting climate change with the rise in carbon dioxide emissions, describing it as "at best, unambiguously ambiguous." In an interview with Roll Call in 1998, Dingell said that environmentalists who blamed rising global temperatures on greenhouse gases were "jackasses," and suggested that they were only hyping the issue because "it pays better."

But Dingell isn't your typical climate-change skeptic. He tends to receive very high ratings from the League of Conservation Voters, and he has repeatedly criticized the Bush administration's dismal environmental record. He has recently pledged to hold a series of congressional hearings on climate change over the next two years--something Inhofe would never do. The problem is that Dingell also happens to be the auto industry's best friend in Congress. His district includes the Dearborn headquarters of Ford, and he has consistently taken in more money from carmakers than any other member of the House. His wife, Debbie, is even a top official at GM.

Throughout his 50 years in the House, that alliance has had an impact on key bills at crucial moments. For most of the 1980s, Congress was unable to pass legislation updating the Clean Air Act--including, crucially, taking action on acid rain--in large part because Dingell kept the bill bottled up in committee. "John Dingell is the number-one reason why we haven't had a floor vote on clean air for the last ten years," one frustrated observer told the Boston Globe. Environmentalists all but declared him public enemy number one, nicknaming him "Tailpipe Johnny" and "Dirty Dingell."

It was only in 1990, when the prevailing winds in Congress had shifted and Dingell realized that clean-air regulations were going to pass with or without him, that he relented and sponsored a bill himself. But he managed to remove new restrictions on tailpipe emissions, beat back a proposed 40 percent increase in fuel-efficiency standards for cars, and killed an amendment requiring that one million "ultra-clean" vehicles be produced a year in the coming decade. That was enough for the auto industry to declare victory. "We are very grateful for the work he has done," said Thomas Hanna, then-president of the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association. "We think the bill is tough enough and it would be tougher without him."

Two years later, Dingell forced his fellow committeeman Henry Waxman--also the ranking member of the House Committee on Government Reform and Dingell's chief antagonist during the clean-air debates--to back off on a global-warming bill that would have required that the United States stabilize carbon emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000. In an angry five-page letter to Dingell, Waxman denounced those who "reflexively oppose new environmental legislation." Recently, Waxman has pledged to push forward once more with aggressive climate-change legislation, and the old rivalry between the two prominent House Democrats is bound to resurface. In an interview with Environment & Energy Daily earlier this year, Dingell said of Waxman's newest bill, which has 90 co-sponsors and gives the EPA increased authority to regulate carbon emissions, "I have reason to believe it's on the extreme side."

It's difficult to know where, exactly, Dingell stands on climate change these days. In his E&E interview, when asked whether Congress would pursue a forceful approach to global warming, he remained decidedly ambiguous. "We'll have to see, won't we?" He then added: "I think the scientific evidence is looking stronger every day. But I don't believe anybody has found a cure for it." Like many Republicans, he tends to hope "breakthrough" technologies, rather than regulations, will reduce carbon emissions. The Detroit News, meanwhile, wrote a sharp editorial after the election warning Dingell to "rein in the ultraliberal Democrats who are beholden to environmentalists ... that promote their agendas without consideration of cost or common sense."

While Dingell has promised to hold extensive hearings on climate change, some environmentalists fear that the hearings are a way of avoiding legislative action. Phil Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, recently complained to reporters, "If another round of fact-finding hearings becomes the Democratic policy, they will have walked away from everything they've talked about for the last five or six years." Frank O'Donnell of Clean Air Watch worried that Democrats like Dingell would be "more comfortable with oversight rather than huge new legislation." And, according to Clean Air Report, Dingell has warned industry groups to "get their arguments in order" for the coming debate on climate change, although he indicated that the "debate" could last up to four years.

The bloodiest battles could be over the regulation of cars and light trucks, which are responsible for over one-fifth of carbon emissions in the United States. Congress will almost certainly have to revisit the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, which currently require that a company's car fleet average 27.5 mpg and its light truck fleet 21.6 mpg. The auto industry opposes them--and, thus, so does Dingell--but the initial round of CAFE standards, passed in 1975, cut oil consumption by roughly one billion barrels per year in the ensuing decade. Detroit whined about the burdensome regulations--"FEDERAL STANDARD IMPOSSIBLE, AUTO MAKERS DECLARE," one typical headline read--but car companies reached the targets without severe difficulty and were soon churning out cars that produced a tiny fraction of the pollution as before.

Nevertheless, the average fuel economy of new vehicles has actually gone down in recent years--in part because Americans are buying bigger cars and SUVs, and in part because Congress hasn't significantly altered CAFE standards since the early '90s. Democrats have repeatedly put forward plans to increase fuel-efficiency standards, and Dingell has repeatedly assisted the GOP in sinking those proposals. In 2001, Congress debated fuel economy at length, but Dingell helped oppose efforts to force SUVs to meet the same standards cars do, instead joining with Billy Tauzin, a Louisiana Republican aligned with the oil industry, to push what amounted, roughly, to a scant one mpg CAFE increase. Auto makers, suffice to say, were once again grateful.

Dingell, it should be noted, is not the only House Democrat who could potentially pose a hurdle to decisive steps on climate change. Rick Boucher is a Virginia Democrat who will chair a key subcommittee tasked with climate oversight. Boucher has a mixed environmental record--he's against increased CAFE standards and joined with Dingell in 1997 to oppose tighter clean-air regulations. Asked by E&E if Democrats would move on global warming, Boucher sounded positively Dingell-esque: "It's very much an open question." Another potential concern is Nick Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat who will chair the House Resources committee and is sympathetic to the coal industry. Both Boucher and Rahall have backed technology to convert coal into oil, which environmentalists say creates twice as much pollution as conventional oil technology.

To be sure, Democrats will be light-years better than their counterparts across the aisle on most environmental fronts. Dingell plans to challenge the Bush administration's policies on everything from clean water to mercury emissions to the EPA's Superfund and brownfields programs. Rahall wants to increase monitoring of public lands and to block efforts to gut endangered-species protections. Those are no minor things. But action on global warming will be a more complicated task, requiring the coordination of a variety of committees and interest groups. It's no wonder Dingell prefers to stick with hearings: Boxer may be right that time is running out, but the auto industry seems content to take things nice and slow.