As the year draws to a close, it is a national relief that the logjam over higher fuel economy standards finally seems about ready to be broken. The House energy bill may not be the best of all possible worlds, but if it becomes law, automakers and suppliers can work to meet the new requirements.
Unfortunately, the ugly political haggling needed to reach what is euphemistically called a compromise left two key conflicts unresolved.
The energy bill fails to make clear whether the EPA or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is responsible for enforcing fuel economy standards. And it does not establish that the new standards will be the law of the land and supersede all state laws.
Leaving those loose ends invites mayhem later.
Last week, when the White House hinted that President Bush might veto the bill, one of the reasons cited was the NHTSA vs. EPA issue. It may seem that since both agencies are part of the Bush administration, the White House could resolve the matter through executive order.
But it's not that simple. Under the Energy Policy Conservation Act of 1975, NHTSA is responsible for fuel economy standards. But under the U.S. Supreme Court ruling this year in Massachusetts vs. EPA, it is the EPA that has the responsibility to limit carbon dioxide emissions — which means improving fuel economy.
Even if the Bush administration were to choose one agency over the other, a new administration might change direction.
A Bush veto might delay the process. But it would give Congress the opportunity to tie up the loose ends by giving either the EPA or NHTSA sole responsibility for fuel economy and clearly establishing the bill as the law of the land.