12/20/2007 11:02 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Energy Bill: Crumbs or Loaves?

Looking at the energy bill, I'd say Congress is settling for crumbs and trying to count them as loaves -- at least until 2009 and TEOB, "The End of Bush."

It's true that by Washington standards for the last decade, the bill was a "landmark," as supporters keep saying. Unlike the 2005 energy bill, it didn't throw more taxpayer billions to oil companies. But by the standards of what the United States needs to be doing right now and by the standards of the rest of the developed world, it was a wimp-out, courtesy of Senate Neanderthals and the White House veto pen.

You can almost hear defenders of the bill (which Bush signed today with a big Texas grin) gagging on their defense. Take Rep. Ed Markey, who takes a stab at praise elsewhere on HuffPost. He lauds the belated increase in auto mileage and some baby steps on appliance efficiency, while admitting with rue that a renewable electricity standard and ambitious tax credits for wind and solar power (funded by removal of lavish oil company tax credits) were erased.

Yet he makes this claim:

"Overall, by 2030, the Energy Bill will reduce the U.S. global warming emissions by nearly a quarter of what's needed to save the planet ..."

Come again? Save the planet? A 35 mpg mileage standard, more efficient refrigerators and more pork for Iowa corn growers will do that, or even a quarter of it? It's the kind of claim that makes even serious politicians sound like Bart Simpson.

As San Francisco columnist Mark Morford points out on today, even China has a stronger vehicle mileage standard:

Yes, it was fully five years ago that those pesky commies mandated that every car on the road (as opposed to fleet averages, as U.S. automakers get away with) get at least 38 mpg, to be increased to 43 in 2008 - 22 percent higher than what our "landmark" achievement won't accomplish until after the next three presidential administrations, and still far short of what many 50-60 mpg European cars can already achieve and all well short of what modern technology could accomplish if we had the slightest bit of nerve and Big Auto wasn't so appallingly gluttonous and the GOP didn't have raw, reeking crude where their humanity used to be.

Whoo. Morford should just say what he means instead of being so polite.

One thing Morford missed: As Markey notes, the bill failed to kill the special federal tax deduction for Hummers. And Yukons. And Suburbans. Any SUV big enough to get single-digit city mileage is deemed a work vehicle, and anyone smart enough to claim a business use (think real estate sales or a hair salon) gets a tax deduction for buying one, up to $100,000 (yes, you read that right).

In addition, some of the increased mileage standard comes partly by way of a lie: E85 flex-fuel vehicles. Manufacturers will continue to get a special mileage credit, essentially a boost of a couple of miles per gallon, for a vehicle that may never fill up on E85 ethanol. That's because none of the Big Five oil companies sells a branded E85 fuel, and all of the oil companies use their dealer contracts to make it from expensive to impossible to sell anything but their own brands.

Bottom line: The energy bill looks good mostly because what came before was so bad. Oil companies don't have to pay a penny or change any of their ways, but at least we consumers will do our part, being required to switch to low-energy lightbulbs by 2012. We shouldn't expect much more in 2008.

But as one of my favorite old books tells us: "Been down so long it looks like up to me."