Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) received the chairmanship of the newest House committee — and, along with it, a turf war with one of the oldest and longest-serving Democrats on Capitol Hill, the formidable Michigan Rep. John Dingell.

Rep. Edward Markey.

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The House voted to create the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming earlier this month, at the urging of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and she appointed Markey to head it. Dingell — who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee and has been slow to recognize the threat of climate change — was none too happy about the incursion into his territory. But Pelosi is determined to focus public and legislative attention on a problem that had gone unaddressed — virtually unmentioned — in preceding Republican Congresses.

Markey is a staunch liberal who has long been outspoken about the need for measures to address energy independence and climate change, but these days he’s soft-spoken about any friction with Dingell. I talked with Markey on the phone, during a rare break in his suddenly extremely busy schedule, about the state of play on climate and energy issues in the still-young 110th Congress.

Expectations were that the politics around global warming would change when the Democrats took the majority. Have they changed as much as you expected?

There’s an old saying: “What a difference a day makes.” That day was Nov. 7, 2006, the day the Republicans lost control of the House and Senate. For the preceding 12 years, they had bottled up any truly progressive energy and environment strategy for the United States — and as a result, for the world. But when Nancy Pelosi became speaker, she made it clear that her goal was to tackle the tough responsibility of making the United States the leader in green technology, pointing the United States toward energy independence, and giving leadership to the world on global warming.

A House subcommittee heard from auto executives last week. They said that raising CAFE [Corporate Average Fuel Economy] standards would financially cripple the industry. What do you make of that?

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Right after the first oil embargo by OPEC, the United States rose from 20 percent dependence on imported oil to 46.5 percent dependence by 1977, in a brief seven-year period. But Congress passed a law — and President Gerald Ford, from Michigan, signed that law — which mandated doubling our fuel-economy standard over the following 10 years. By 1985, the United States declined to only 27 percent dependence on imported oil.

That was an incredible achievement by General Motors, by Ford, by Chrysler, by the automotive industry generally. They should be proud of what they did. Unfortunately, a loophole was left in the law which allowed SUVs and light trucks to escape the rigors of improving efficiency. So now, over the last 20 years, we’ve climbed from 27 percent dependence to 60 percent dependence on imported oil.

In the next year, we’re going to have a political discussion with our domestic auto industry that will result in higher standards being imposed, so we will begin to have that line pointed downward in terms of the amount of oil that the United States imports.

You just submitted a bill that would raise CAFE standards 4 percent a year. Does it have a chance of passing against the opposition of Rep. John Dingell?

In 2005, Rep. Sherry Boehlert [R-N.Y.] and I brought an amendment onto the House floor that required improvement of fuel-economy standards for our automotive fleet by 10 miles per gallon over a 10-year period. We were able to get 177 votes. By the middle of 2006, with the price of gasoline hovering near $3 a gallon, we had picked up 20 to 25 additional commitments. But the Republican leadership would not give us the opportunity to have that debate last year.

Since then, the Democrats have won the House, the speaker is committed to ensuring that we improve the fuel-economy standards, and I think that we have an excellent chance of passing legislation.

How does your bill differ from the fuel-economy increases Bush proposed?

In one simple way: in my legislation, it is mandated. The president, on the other hand, leaves it to the discretion of the Department of Transportation — the agency which has not acted on this issue for the past decade. We cannot leave it to the discretion of any agency. We must treat this as a national-security crisis and ensure that it is mandated, not optional, that the auto industry respond to this challenge.

From my perspective, the Bush administration imposes a mandate on American troops — it says they have to be over in the Middle East. We need a similar mandate on the auto companies, so the costs of reducing our dependence on oil from the Middle East are placed back here, in the United States — so that we all help fight this war, not just the Army and the Marines.

Nancy Pelosi’s special committee on global warming has been formed, and you’re the chair. There were rumors of tension behind the scenes with regard to how your committee would relate to the Energy and Commerce Committee. How has that settled out? What is the division of labor?

The division of labor is as the speaker announced it back in the middle of January. She made quite clear that the new Select Committee on Energy and Global Warming would not have legislative authority. However, she did indicate that because the jurisdiction for energy and global warming is spread out over at least eight committees in Congress, she wanted to have one central committee that had the ability to revive public interest in taking bold and effective action after six years of Republican denial. Secondly, she wanted to raise public consciousness both in Congress and outside the Beltway about the need to get us on a glide path to lower carbon emissions and lower energy dependence. And three, the committee will recommend strategies, without regard to jurisdictional silos, that are effective to, one, reduce our addiction to oil without worsening global warming, and, two, reduce carbon emissions without worsening our addiction to oil.

Originally Speaker Pelosi announced a target of early June to get legislation on global warming and energy independence out of committee. It’s rumored that Dingell has persuaded her to move the deadline back. Is that accurate?

You’ll have to talk to her and her staff about that issue. I think she is still very much interested in having June 1 as a deadline.

Momentum is building behind a cap-and-trade bill. Any idea which of the various proposals will pass, or what will be in it?

The Democrats have retaken control of Congress after a 12-year hiatus — for only nine weeks. This issue has not had any attention for 12 years! It’s important that we have a deliberative process to ensure that the proposal ultimately produced comes from a real understanding of the complexity of the issues. The Republican Congress hasn’t left us much of a legacy in terms of hearing records, so it will take a little time to be able to go through all the various proposals and come up with one that is effective and can be passed by Congress.

By the end of this Congress, we must have acted to pass a mandatory cap-and-trade system that puts this nation on a path to stabilize greenhouse gases. That’s the goal that I have and it’s the goal that the speaker has.

Do you think a carbon tax is politically possible?

It’s a good question. I’m not sure it should be completely ruled out, but ultimately that decision will have to be made based on what is in the rest of the package.

What is Congress going to do to prevent or slow down the nationwide rush to build dirty coal-fired power plants?

The goal is to create incentives for, one, cleaner coal, two, alternative ways of generating electricity, and, three, ways of dramatically reducing the demand for electricity — and as a result the need for more power plants. In the latter category, if we look at the way we manufacture air conditioners, computers, etc., there are ways we can make these devices much more energy efficient and reduce by 30, 50, or 100 percent the need for new coal-fired plants. The challenge, in a lot of ways, is to work smarter, not harder.

Specifically, a lot of coal plants are being rushed into construction based on the assumption that when a cap-and-trade system is put in place, existing fossil-fuel facilities will be grandfathered in or granted a big package of carbon credits. Is anything being done to try to short-circuit that?

That is a real concern. We need to bring the coal industry and the utilities into a cap-and-trade system, but if they are banking on grandfathering polluting plants they are constructing right now, they are making a very bad bet. St. Augustine said at age 40, “Oh Lord, make me chaste, but not just yet.” The coal and utility industries, some of them are saying, “Oh Lord, make me clean, but not just yet.” We have to let them know that there are going to be high expectations for their industries.

Political analysts say Democrats have a good shot at the presidency in 2008. Why get locked into a weakened or compromised legislative response to climate change when you could be acting from a position of much greater strength in a couple of years?

If the prognostication powers of those people are accurate, and the Democrats control the House, the Senate, and the presidency, then we can not only fix any deficiencies, but we can almost perfect legislation. In the event, however, that they’re wrong, it probably doesn’t make any sense not to do anything until that day arrives.

I don’t think that the legislative momentum created on Nov. 7, 2006, should be lost, because 12 years have now transpired with no action. We can do more, but because we can’t make progress on all parts doesn’t mean we should make no progress on any parts.

What would you like to see happen on the international stage?

Europe took strong steps [earlier this month]. If the United States joined them and offered even greater leadership, that partnership would have the credentials to begin to seek a big, global solution. In the absence of that, I’m afraid we’re going to see exponential increases [in greenhouse-gas emissions] in China and India.

We have a nuclear nonproliferation treaty because the weapon states acted. In the case of carbon, we are a weapon state. So is Europe. If we want the other countries to join with us, we have to have policies that will be respected by those countries.

The coalition building around global warming now includes environmentalists, religious leaders, national-security hawks, and the business community. Almost everybody is on board except the White House. What’s going on in there?

That is an excellent question. In his State of the Union [address], President Bush actually uttered the words “serious challenge of global climate change.” Not since Charles Foster Kane whispered the word “Rosebud” on his death bed have words touched off so much speculation about what their author actually meant and what it all signals. You would have to be a mind reader.

Would you support Al Gore if he ran for president?

What Al Gore has done for this issue is bigger than presidential.

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