Science, Tech & Environment

Clean Air Champ Challenges Motor City Maven

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GELLERMAN: For decades, Congressman John Dingell has championed Detroit carmakers on Capitol Hill. As chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce committee, the Michigan Democrat fought fuel efficiency increases and attempts to cut auto pollution, saying they were too costly. Now Congressman Dingell faces a challenge for his job from California Democrat Henry Waxman. As Living on Earth's Jeff Young reports, this congressional clash of titans could have profound implications for the environment. YOUNG: If you want to know how important the House Committee on Energy and Commerce is, consider the oversize photograph on the wall of a committee office: it's a NASA shot of earth taken from space. Chairman John Dingell likes to point at it and say, "This is the jurisdiction of my committee." It's only a slight exaggeration. BECKER: All the bills that affect the atmosphere, global warming, toxic waste, air pollution, water pollution, and pretty much anything else having to do with the environment begin and end in the Energy and Commerce Committee. YOUNG: That's Dan Becker with the Safe Climate Campaign. Becker's battled years for laws to make cars run cleaner and run farther on a gallon of gas. Often, he was battling Chairman Dingell, who looked after his home state's automakers. Becker's hopeful the new Congress will put a new chairman in this powerful committee. BECKER: Under Mr. Dingell the energy and commerce committee has become a graveyard for progressive, pro-environment legislation over the last couple of decades. So the stakes are extraordinarily high. We can either have a leader of this committee who wields the gavel in favor of the environment, or against. YOUNG: The morning after election day, representative Henry Waxman called Dingell to say he would challenge him for the chairmanship. They're the two most senior Democrats on the committee but they share little else in common. Waxman represents Beverly Hills, California, which suffers mightily from auto pollution. Dingell represents Dearborn Michigan, home to the Ford Motor Company. And they have starkly different philosophies on environmental regulation. For example, Waxman is eager to have California and 13 other states regulate greenhouse gas emissions from autos. As chair of the powerful House Oversight Committee, Waxman criticized the Bush Administration for blocking those regulations. WAXMAN: We need to adopt very strict legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but at least under the Clean Air Act, the EPA can close down one of the areas that's most offensive in terms of the amount of CO2 emissions and that's from motor vehicles. YOUNG: Dingell saw that as a threat to the auto industry and pushed for bills that agree with the Bush administration's stance, denying state authority to regulate. DINGELL: My question is, "Do you want to produce cars, do you want to have jobs?" We need one good strong regulator. We don't need a whole lot of people messing around. And if you'll look back in 1789 you'll see the US found they simply could not tolerate barriers at state borders by a lot of enthusiastic people who are trying to enrich themselves at the expense of neighbors in other states. YOUNG: Veteran environmental activist Frank O'Donnell of Clean Air Watch says that was just the latest round in a fight that goes back more than 20 years. Waxman became an early champion of strengthening the Clean Air Act's reach and enforcement. O'DONNELL: And Dingell was seen as his obvious adversary who ultimately would side with car companies weakening and rolling back tailpipe standards for cars. He was named at the time "Tailpipe Johnny" by a republican congressman named Ed Madigan, who said, "Look, here comes Tailpipe Johnny!" YOUNG: O'Donnell says Waxman and Dingell have recently staked out ground for their next and perhaps biggest environmental fight: a bill on global warming. Waxman sees it as an urgent problem and wants aggressive CO2 cuts. He wants a cap and trade system that auctions its CO2 permits and he'd use the revenue from that auction to invest in clean energy. And he sponsored a bill that would stop coal-fired power plants that do not control CO2 emissions. Dingell released a draft bill last month that proposed more modest emissions cuts over a longer period of time. He'd give CO2 permits to polluting companies. And he's not about to stop coal power. DINGELL: The United States is indeed the Saudi Arabia of coal. I cannot and I will not refuse to have coal be a part of the solution to the problems we confront. YOUNG: National Mining Association spokesperson Luke Popovich says a global warming bill shepherded through committee by Dingell would better balance economic and environmental concerns. POPOVICH: I'm not so certain that Congressman Waxman, coming from Beverly Hills, California, is going to be as sensitive to the economic implications of climate change legislation. YOUNG: That's a point Dingell makes while trying to round up support from fellow Democrats. In this interview with Detroit talk radio station WJR, Dingell used some sharp language to characterize Waxman. DINGELL: At a time when the auto industry, American manufacturing, American industry needs somebody to look after them and see that they are fairly treated to get the help they need to survive a desperate situation, he wants to put in an anti-manufacturing, left-wing democrat. YOUNG: Dingell says he has enough support to keep his post. Waxman says he has the votes to prevail. The issue could be settled soon when Democrats return to Congress for a lame duck session. It's a power struggle in Congress that could shape how the country powers itself. For Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Young in Washington.

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