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Senate Energy Bill Drops--And Electric Cars Get A Surprise Jolt

On a press call this afternoon, Senate staffers walked through the details of the minimalist energy bill that's hitting the floor this week. As expected, the bill will tighten up oversight on offshore drilling and lift the ceiling on the amount of damages oil companies are liable for in the event of a spill. (Naturally, the unlimited liability would apply retroactively to BP.) Plus, there's some money for the Home Star program, which will give owners rebates for making their homes more efficient, as well as various incentives for natural gas and electric vehicles. You can find a draft summary here.

All told, it's a tiny bill—the total cost comes to around $15 billion. And it won't do all that much for the environment: When one reporter asked committee staffers bill whether anyone knew how much greenhouse-gas reduction this bill would lead to, several people laughed out loud. The idea that this will make a significant dent in the climate problem is preposterous. The Home Star section is useful and will save the country billions in home-energy costs, true, but that's still just the tip of mountain in terms of what you can do with efficiency.

Maybe the only significant surprise is the electric-car section. Originally, rumors had it that the bill would only contain incentives for natural-gas vehicles. As I mentioned in an earlier post, there are a lot of reasons to think that's misguided and that electrification is actually a better, more cost-effective way to lower our oil consumption. But it will take a lot of work to set up an electric-vehicle infrastructure, and there's room for the government to coordinate a lot of those efforts.

The bill takes a few shuffling steps in that direction. It calls on the Energy Department to create a national plan for deploying electric vehicles. It allows electricity to count as an alternative vehicle fuel. It provides grants to local communities that set up their own plug-in networks. It also calls for a whole flurry of studies on things like identifying the raw materials needed for plug-in technology (no doubt with an eye on China's announcement that it will cut exports for rare-earth metals like lithium, which are crucial for batteries). All told, there's only $400 million in the bill for electrification, compared with $6 billion in tax incentives for the purchase of natural-gas vehicles. Still, it's a start.

(Flickr photo credit: Katie and Joe)