Change of heart
Less than a year ago, Dingell said he had doubts about climate science. That remark came right after Democratic election victories returned him to the chair of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee.
This month, Dingell explained his new support for a cap-and-trade program by telling Automotive News, "The science has resolved itself."
He declined to say more about his changed thinking.
Regardless of the process, he and industry executives, particularly of the Detroit 3, have arrived at a similar position — that a comprehensive climate policy is needed.
After years of resistance, the Detroit 3 this year called for a national cap that would lead to overall emissions cuts like Dingell's. Toyota and some other import-brand automakers agree.
Despite those views, Congress is edging toward raising corporate average fuel economy standards to 35 mpg by 2020, up from about 25 mpg today. Dingell and industry executives reluctantly endorsed a milder alternative.
That endorsement gives automakers credibility to push for emissions controls on all business sectors, says John DeCicco, senior fellow at the Environmental Defense advocacy group.
Reg Modlin, director of environmental affairs for Chrysler LLC, said: "The concept of cap and trade is fundamentally pretty good. But you need a real broad base" of emitters to be regulated.
Under cap and trade, the government would set a lid on emissions and gradually tighten it. Utilities, refineries and others, such as large factories, would buy and sell emissions allocations. The system effectively "prices" emissions and boosts more cost-effective controls, proponents say.
Dingell's support improves chances for congressional action on a cap-and-trade plan. The Senate is preparing to move such a bill soon. The White House still opposes cap and trade. Some 2008 presidential contenders have floated plans.
At this point, Dingell's cap-and-trade proposal is a rough outline. But it suggests the automobile industry would be covered. A summary says the plan would "also regulate motor vehicle manufacturers through efficiency or other performance standards."
Dingell's plan is a new chapter in his long, uneasy history with environmentalists. They credit him with helping enact several major environmental laws. But they chafe at his resistance to tougher standards for automakers and question his motives.
"Dingell is taking these steps to protect his turf," said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch. "It's just enough activity to quiet the critics."
Dingell has been at odds with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. She seeks tougher fuel economy standards and wants states to have their own greenhouse gas emissions rules.
In an effort to bypass Dingell early this year, Pelosi created a special House committee on climate change and energy independence.
Now she is trying to engineer passage of a new energy law with the 35-mpg fuel economy standard. Pelosi is using behind-the-scenes procedures that curtail the traditional roles of committee chairmen such as Dingell.
The 81-year-old Dingell calls climate change legislation the biggest challenge of his 52 years in Congress. His campaign Web site — he says he's running for re-election next year — identifies him as "leading" that fight.