A Primed Political Pump

Americans have found something they agree on. They're fed up with U.S. dependence on foreign oil

Republican pollster William D. McInturff has tracked plenty of issues over the years. But even he has been surprised at how quickly a new concern has recently gone "from not on the radar screen to being an American consensus." The worry? It's foreign oil dependence. Adds Democratic pollster Mark S. Mellman: "There's a strong feeling that we are sending billions to people who don't like us in exchange for oil, damaging national security."

This growing concern cuts across party and regional lines—and Americans are livid about Washington's failure to do anything about it. "People thought they voted for change in 2006, but they haven't seen it," says McInturff. Throw in increasing worry about global warming, and it's clear that a significant political shift has occurred.

Already business is feeling the heat. The first to get burned: U.S. automakers. Congress has struck a deal to raise the required corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) from 27.5 mpg for cars and 22.4 mpg for light trucks to 35 mpg by 2020, a shift the Big Three had fended off for 20 years. "If anyone had said a year ago that we would have a 35 mpg standard, no one would have believed it," says one auto lobbyist.

What happened was that Congress heeded the new message before the auto companies did. The change also gained momentum with oil near $100 per barrel and with prominent admirals and generals insisting that cuts in oil imports are vital to national security. And environmentalists launched an ad campaign warning lawmakers that not backing higher mileage standards could cost them the next election.

That's why longtime opponents of major CAFE increases, such as Senators Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), signed on. "I don't want to support al Qaeda by buying more gasoline than I have to," explains Mikulski.

By November, the Big Three's top backer, Representative John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), was left holding a losing hand. "The industry was aware that a shift was occurring but was shocked by the pace and degree of change," concedes David McCurdy, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. Dingell failed to lower the 35mpg target or to take away the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to further regulate fuel economy with emissions curbs. "The situation has changed, and Congress is responding to that," says Dingell. "This is the very best deal that could be worked out."

Congress is now trying to hitch other policies to the fuel economy deal, such as requiring more "green" electricity or taking away Big Oil's tax breaks, so it's not yet clear when the mileage standard will pass. But the new political reality has wider implications. Weaning the U.S. from imported energy and tackling global warming requires other drastic steps. "It's not just about CAFE," says Peter Molinaro, vice-president for government affairs at Dow Chemical (DOW). "It's convenient to pin it on the auto guys, but we have to do a lot more."

That should be a wake-up call to others, argues Philip Clapp, deputy managing director of the Pew Environment Group. "The auto companies tried to just say 'no,' but they completely miscalculated the political shift," he says. Industries and lawmakers who oppose broader global warming legislation, he warns, risk the same sort of defeat.

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