Electric Vehicle Legislation Gets Interesting in D.C.; Many Bills, Many Options, No Certainty
On a 19-4 vote—with broad bipartisan support—the Promoting Electric Vehicles Act (PEVA) of 2010 was voted out of committee today and is now awaiting scheduling for a vote on the floor of the Senate before passage. The House also has its own version of the bill, which would have to be passed by that body before the final bill would be signed into law.
The bill's sponsors, Senators Byron Dorgan (D-ND), Lamar Alexander (R-TN), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR), hope that if the bill is passed it will "put the nation on a path to electrify half its cars and trucks by 2030," lowering U.S. demand for oil by about one-third.
As widely reported, the PEVA's main goal is to set up a number of "deployment communities" across the U.S., where, according to Dorgan's office, "targeted incentive programs for electric vehicles and charging infrastructure systems would help demonstrate rapid market penetration and determine what 'best practices' would be helpful for nationwide deployment of electric vehicles."
Originally the PEVA involved $11 billion in funding, but was whittled down to about $6 billion as a compromise for the deficit hawks. The version that passed out of committee today was for about $3.6 billion, but according to Mike Westling, Senator Merkley's Press Secretary, that simply boils down to a procedural issue; The PEVA was passed out of the Energy Committee, which has no jurisdiction over tax credits, so extra tax credits for the deployment communities—$10,000 per electric car—were wiped from the bill in order to get it out of committee. However, according to Westling, those credits will be added back in when the PEVA reaches the Senate floor and the bill will be restored to its full $6 billion before a final vote.
With President Obama recently joining in the promotion of plug-in vehicles on several high profile battery manufacturing facility tours, and this recent focus on getting electric vehicle legislation passed, it seems that the plug-in movement is gathering a full head of steam as we enter the next phase of its development—the introduction of actual production vehicles over the next two years.
Passage is Far From Certain
Even though the bill is now out of committee, questions still remain about its fate. The auto industry has come out in opposition of any bill that specifically targets a handful of communities for federal dollars, saying that it leaves the rest of the country in the lurch.
Kathryn Clay, director of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, also said at a recent hearing, "Attempts to prejudge the market bring tremendous risks, and the problem is compounded by making just a few large bets." While the industry thinks that electric cars represent great promise, they don't buy into any silver bullet argument and suggest that all promising future transportation automotive technologies—including clean diesel, conventional hybrid, hydrogen fuel cell, biofuels, and, of course, plug-ins—should be treated equally.
Given the pushback from the industry, the passing of the bill out of committee by no means indicates that it will have an easy route to being signed into law. To complicate matters even more, Senate Democrats—who hope to achieve passage of a comprehensive Energy Bill by the time Congress breaks for recess in November—are now rumbling that they want to include the PEVA in the Energy Bill, which would delay its passage and tie it to the very uncertain, and by no means bipartisan effort, surrounding that massive package of legislation.
One of the beauties of the PEVA is how broad a base of support it has among both Democrats and Republicans. In fact, there is likely no other major issue on the hill right now that has anywhere near that amount of bipartisan comraderie, so muddling it up by putting it inside another bill that has become incredibly polarizing during an election year might just spell its doom.
Already the PEVA has been watered down from its original $11 billion to a compromised $6 billion. And there are also reports that to accommodate industry criticism, that $6 billion will be now be spread out over the entire country instead of concentrated in a handful of communities. If that turns out to be the case, you start to wonder how much more it could get squeezed before it becomes a wasted effort?
But Wait, There's Another Bill?
Potentially confusing the issue even more, one of the PEVA's original sponsors, Senator Merkley, has just unveiled a bill of his own called the Oil Independence for a Stronger America Act (OISAA). This bill has not even been officially introduced in the Senate yet, but details of Merkley's plan can be found on his website (PDF).
Cosponsored by Senators Tom Carper (D-DE), Tom Udall (D-NM) and Michael Bennet (D-CO), the OISAA not only incorporates the entirety of the original language from the PEVA, but it also address a ton of other issues. From helping communities establish other transportation options (light rail, personal rapid transit, etc.), to accelerating vehicle electrification, to increasing energy efficiency, to setting even higher light vehicle fuel economy standards, to helping truck drivers make their rigs more fuel efficient, to increasing the use of natural gas among commercial vehicles, the OISAA runs the gamut. In fact, it's so comprehensive that even the Natural Resources Defense Council has seemed to wholeheartedly approve of it.
But, although the OISAA seems to have the potential for broad bipartisan support, its very presence may muddle up the waters even more. I had the chance to talk with Merkley's Press Officer, Mike Westling, today about the potential for this. "The bills are two separate bills and the Senator is pushing this electric vehicle idea through both means," said Westling. "It's great if we can pass the Promoting Electric Vehicles Act, because that's part of Senator Merkley's oil independence plan. In that case, the oil independence plan might then be altered because the electric vehicle portion is already law," he said.
"The bottom line is that the Senator has his full support behind both the Promoting Electric Vehicles Act that he sponsored with Senators Dorgan and Alexander, as well as his Oil Independence plan, and he wants to see electric vehicle progress by either means or both," concluded Westling.
Based on the appearance of Merkley's bill after objections from the auto industry were raised around the original PEVA, it seemed that the OISAA was a direct response to the industry's feeling that dumping all the eggs into the EV basket was taking excessive risk. But according to Westling, that's just not the case. "The oil independence plan is something Senator Merkley has been working on for quite a while—and been thinking about for quite a while—and it's definitely not a result of any reaction to industry's take on the electric vehicle bill," he said.
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