OPINION: Nation Needs Stricter Fuel Efficiency Standards

By U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski

Today, the Senate is trying to come up with an energy bill, and I know that Senators have been working very hard on all sides of the aisle to come up with consensus legislation that we can support. I really do support them. I want to particularly call to the attention of the Senate, the efforts of Senators Pryor, Levin and Stabenow to try to come up with a compromise on CAFE.

But Mr. President, we are now where we are, and we are in a very important juncture in our history. Mr. President, you know me. I'm a blue collar Senator. My heart and soul lies with the blue collar American. I spent most of my life in a blue collar neighborhood. When Bethlehem Steel went on strike, my father gave those workers credit. When U.S. Steel went on strike, my father and mother tried to smooth the way by helping them in the grocery store.

My career and my public service is one of deep commitment to the working people. So when automobile manufacturers told me they couldn't meet the increased CAFE standards, I listened, and I listened year after year. And now, I've listened for more than 20 years. When they told me they needed more time, I agreed. When they told me that an increase in CAFE standards was unattainable with existing technology, I voted against the increase to give more time so that we could come up with attainable and existing technology. But 20 years have gone by since the last increase in fuel efficiency standards. I was here when we voted for those CAFE standards. And now, after 20 years, I firmly do believe it is time for a change. Not any kind of change, Mr. President - a smart change, a feasible change, an affordable change. That's why I support the energy bill that is before us. And I support the framework that's been generally presented by Senator Feinstein of California.

I know that American automobile manufacturers and their workers are true patriots. They want what is the best for our nation. They've faced challenges before and they have met them. And I believe that they will face these challenges now. I believe they know and want to build vehicles that are safer and more energy-efficient. The time has now come to increase fuel efficiency standards. We need a national effort, because they need to be able to help their own industry survive, and also because it is in the best interest of the nation.

I believe that our world and our nation is facing a crisis. When you look at the increased price of gas at the pump, it's hurting every single person. Talk to the family who it now costs $90 to fill up a minivan or a commuter, who has no other way to get to work than an automobile, who is now paying more to get to work than they are for their food bill. Like you, Mr. President, we know that small businesses need those vans to make those deliveries - whether they own a flower shop, whether they are a heating and air conditioning guy, whether it's the plumber or the person delivering medicine to nursing homes. In my own state right now there are watermen, the fisherman out on the Chesapeake Bay, trying to harvest ever-diminishing crabs with ever-increasing fuel prices.

Mr. President, it is time to conserve our energy resources and to deal with the crisis that we are facing. We know that energy and gasoline and petroleum products are in limited supply and are going up. We know that America's dependence on foreign oil presents a very serious national security challenge. I'm on the Intelligence Committee and I know what these trans-national threats are. I know that energy independence is absolutely crucial to fighting the global war against terrorism.

Follow the money, Mr. President, and know that every time we're putting money into the tank, we're putting money into the pockets of the petro-Jihadists that are trying to undermine us everywhere around the world - undermining and attacking our troops in Iraq, funding Hezbollah so they can attack Israel, Hugo Chavez shaking, rattling and rolling in Latin America. Do we really want our money going to the petro-Jihadists that want to plot and destroy not only American lives but the American way of life? I don't want to support al Qaeda by buying more gasoline than I have to. This is what Iran, Venezuela and others are doing.

We need to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. That is one of the most important things that we can ask the public to help in fighting the war against terrorism. There are 150,000 men and women fighting in Iraq today. The temperature is 110 degrees. Just in the last two days, we have lost an additional 14 American Soldiers fighting in Iraq. While they're doing that, though, there are 300 million of us who don't have to share in the sacrifice of the battle of Iraq. But we can share in the sacrifice if we take on energy conservation and are serious about it.

At the same time, we know there is a dangerous increase in the climate crisis that affects the life on our planet. It, too, is a national security issue because, make no mistake, the climate crisis will affect our food supply, will create a climate in which infectious disease will grow and natural disasters will increase. Now what can we do about it? How can we sign up to have a safer America, a safer planet? Well, I believe that the most sensible foundation of an energy plan must begin with conservation. We've got to make better use of what we've got in our homes, in our businesses, in our cars and in our airplanes. We also need incentives for new renewable energy and energy-efficient technologies that we use in our homes and our businesses. We need an increase in fuel efficiency standards for our vehicles on the road and our vehicles in the air.

Now, I come back to fuel efficiency standards, known as CAFE. My heart and soul lies with the American worker. So I believe that anything that we do must preserve American jobs. But it also must achieve real savings in oil consumption. It also has to be realizable and achievable. That means a real technological ability to accomplish it. That means a reasonable lead time to adjust a company's production. And I also believe we have to create incentives to enable companies to achieve those goals. I don't believe in an industrial policy where we pick winners and losers - but if we're going to pick a winning energy policy, we have to provide some type of help to the industry to help them get where we need for them to go.

In the 1950s, when part of the world had the Iron Curtain come down and they went into Communism - many against their own will like Poland, Estonia - there was a whole other world that chose to go into what they called a 'Socialist tendency.' We saw industrial Democracies like England, France and Canada develop a national health care system.

But we said, 'No, we are Americans, we don't want to go that way. We don't want to have a national health system.' So we said to the private sector - provide health care, provide pensions, and we'll support that. So, our American manufacturing base went to a defined benefit. They did provide health care. They did provide pensions. And now, they should not be penalized for it. Our American manufacturers and our automobile industry have to carry the legacy cost of health care - and we asked them to do it and they did it. General Motors provides more health care than the VA [Veterans Administration] system. They provide more health care than some countries around the world. They have legacy costs to retirees. So, if we're going to make the move in CAFE, we have to acknowledge that issue and also how it impacts their competitiveness. Let's put our thinking caps on. Let's not help only one industry. Maybe this is the time to motivate us to get serious about having universal health care and a real prescription drug benefit so we don't dump it on the private sector to do.

I also know, when we look at preserving jobs, we need to make sure the technology is achievable. I believe that it is. I believe that there are also certain waivers in this bill that help them achieve - that deal with the fact that if they cannot increase some of these standards, the mandates can be waived. Mr. President, you don't get an energy policy by mandates alone. We can't mandate and regulate our way out of this. I will vote for raising energy standards, but I don't want to ignore the economic impact this is going to have on the automobile industry. We just can't mandate and we just can't regulate. So, I say to my colleagues, if we're going to go energy, then let's go health care. If we're going to go energy, then let's fit the prescription drug benefit in and don't talk about vetoes and filibusters. Let's work in our national interest.

Let's now work on our manufacturing base. Out-of-control health care costs mean that companies are less able to invest in technology. Our current President talks about relieving the tax burden. But, to our business community, the cost of health care is a tax burden because we have not gotten serious about how to provide affordable health care both to the people who want to buy it and businesses who want to provide it. So, let's get rid of that health care tax on American businesses and come up with universal health care. Last year, we made some progress in helping manufacturers meet their pension obligations and we can do it in health care.

The time has come to raise the CAFE standards. But the time has come, also, to put our thinking caps on, to be an innovation society, and to come up with new ideas for efficiency, new technologies for energy efficiency, and new composite materials to make cars lighter, but keep them safe. And also, at the same time, to seriously come to grips with health care.

This is not an easy vote for me, I'm telling you. This is not an easy vote for me. I have always - for 20 years - stood with colleagues like Senators Levin and Stabenow. But I know, if we are dealing with the Jihadists, we have to get serious about fuel efficiency, and get serious about American workers. So, today I know that we voted for cloture on the bill, but we have to continue to speak up to have a safer country and have a stronger economy and, for God's sake, be smarter about it.

Note: The above was also delivered on the Floor of the U.S. Senate on Thursday, June 21, 2007.

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