12/03/2007 10:29 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Dan Becker's Moment

For the first time in more than 30 years, both houses of Congress are poised to pass legislation that would increase fuel efficiency from cars, trucks, and SUVs by 40 percent. Even Michigan's Congressman John Dingell and Senator Carl Levin have said they will go along with the proposal.

We are finally getting somewhat serious about kicking our addiction to oil. I say somewhat because what we really should be committing to is a long-term plan in which every year's fuel efficiency improves by the full 4 percent that is technically and economically feasible -- rather than by capping at 35 MPG, as this compromise legislation would do. But that's another fight for another day.

Obviously, any victory and sea change this huge is the work of many, many contributors. In this case, in addition to House Speaker Pelosi and Massachusetts Congressman Ed Markey, who stood up to Dingell, we need to pay special tribute to California Senator Dianne Feinstein for her Senate leadership, along with Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, who helped bring Republicans along.

Oil prices climbing to close to $100/barrel helped, as did the leadership of dozens of retired generals and admirals from the armed services who kept pointing out that this was a national security issue.

Former California Assemblywoman Fran Pavley deserves enormous credit for having introduced the first state carbon dioxide air pollution standards, now adopted by states that account for about half of North America's vehicle sales (New Mexico just became the latest).

And Pavley's bill was possible only thanks to the efforts of an enormous coalition of environmental organizations. We owe a lot to the Sierra Club lawyers who brought the case that led the Supreme Court to make it clear that carbon dioxide is an air pollutant subject to regulation by the EPA -- and hence California -- under the Clean Air Act.

And of course, none of this could have happened without the election results of 2006, which put both the Senate and the House under the leadership of strong clean-energy advocates.

But I want to pay special tribute to the warrior who kept this fight alive for years in the 1990s, when almost everyone wanted to give up on higher Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards as simply being too tough politically -- former Sierra Club Global Warming and Energy lobbyist Dan Becker. Dan came close to getting CAFE improved a couple of times -- once losing a Senate cloture vote by a heartbreakingly close margin. But he never gave up, and he never let the Sierra Club give up. He continually tweaked and redesigned his proposals and spent a decade trying to persuade the American automakers of the now obvious folly of trying to survive by refusing to compete with the imports on new technology and efficiency. And when California passed the Pavley bill, Dan led the charge in state after state to make it clear to the auto industry that if Washington didn't act, the states would simply do it themselves.

This is truly Dan's moment.

It looks likely that in addition to Congress passing a tough new auto fuel-efficiency bill, it's also likely to adopt, perhaps in several bills, a package that includes a new renewable biofuels program, and a renewable electricity standard. There will still be a Senate filibuster of the bill the House passes this week, and lame-duck New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici was sounding particularly sour, complaining that the House had ruined everything by including a modest 15 percent clean electricity standard in its bill. But with the votes of Senators close to the auto industry now added to those who helped move the original Senate bill earlier in the year, it seems likely that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will be able to assemble the 60 votes he needs to overcome Domenici and other die-hard Senate opponents of progress.