EPA Drops Data Before GOP Forces Shutdown of Transportation Hearing

The Senate environment panel today was forced to prematurely shutter its latest hearing on the next long-term federal transportation bill after Republicans invoked a rarely-used right to close down committee work as part of their broader protest against the majority party’s health care legislation.

2549087853_62635f6261.jpgSen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), center, with Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) at right. (Photo: NWF via Flickr)

The abbreviated hearing gave senators little time to discuss the next transportation measure’s impact on energy and the environment, a significant issue for members of both parties. "It’s a shame," committee chief Barbara Boxer (D-CA) said, "but we’re caught up with something that has to do with health care."

Gina McCarthy, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) senior air-quality official, did get to outline the results of an report her agency released last month [PDF] at the request of Sen. John Kerry (D-MA). The senator had asked the EPA to determine the maximum achievable reduction in pollution from the transportation sector — which currently accounts for about 30 percent of total U.S. emissions — by the year 2030.

For its emissions model, the EPA assumed that auto fuel-efficiency standards would continue rising in concert with the Obama administration’s plan to reach an average of 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. Other assumptions included a 60-percent improvement in the fuel efficiency of new freight trucks and the transit and land use reforms outlined in last year’s Moving Cooler report.

What did the EPA find? Per McCarthy’s testimony:

[B]y 2030, greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector could be reduced by 600 to 1000 million metric tons annually, which would be the equivalent of taking 120 to 200 million cars off the road. The projected oil savings are 4 to 7 million barrels per day, representing one-third to over one-half of our current oil imports. These greenhouse gas emissions and oil savings represent a 25 to 40 percent reduction in the transportation sector relative to the Energy Information Administration’s 2009 Annual Energy Outlook baseline.

McCarthy emphasized that the report does not represent an official EPA recommendation on transport emissions cuts, but its release comes at an auspicious time, as Kerry bids to revive the prospects for a Senate climate bill by partnering with Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) on a new approach to curbing pollution.

That Senate trio reportedly plans to make a revenue-neutral fuel tax part of its climate proposal, a concept that could hinder lawmakers’ ability to use the existing federal gas tax as a tool to raise revenue for the next transportation bill. The stated goal on all sides is the same — bringing America towards "energy independence" — but major questions remain over how to define that state.

NGV America president Richard Kolodziej, who leads a coalition of energy firms and utilities seeking more support for natural gas-powered autos, told senators that "we will not be independent" of foreign oil within the next two decades. "But we will be much less dependent if we can have a system where our commercial infrastructure cannot be affected because of an embargo" by oil-exporting nations, he added.

Deron Lovaas, transport policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, countered that a better term to define the national ideal should be "energy-secure." That state would be possible by 2030, he said, by combining policies that decrease demand (e.g. more investment in transit) with more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Lovaas also cited his membership in the new Mobility Choice lobbying alliance, members of which include conservatives Clifford May and Kenneth Green. lllustrating the competing political interest in new fuel fees, Lovaas said the new group "favors an oil security fee to pay for inter-city passenger rail."

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