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As Bush signs energy bill, new issues come to the fore

Expect a political debate over how to regulate carbon-dioxide emissions come January, analysts say.

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America is getting a green-energy law just in time for Christmas. It's not the great big one with a bow that environmentalists wanted, but, analysts say, it still represents nothing less than a new beginning on national energy policy.

After dodging White House veto threats and Senate filibusters, the slim-but-still-substantial energy bill was signed by President Bush Wednesday.

But the real gift to the nation may be the political breakthrough in Congress that produced the landmark first fuel-economy mandate in 32 years and a sevenfold increase in ethanol production by 2022, observers say.

"There's a fundamentally different dynamic in Congress now," says Bracken Hendricks, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a progressive policy think tank in Washington. "The fact that an increase in fuel economy standards was able to pass by a 3-to-1 margin would have been unimaginable a year ago."

Despite all the rhetoric, until this month the US had not made much progress on either oil dependency or climate change – the two major structural challenges to the US energy system and economy, says Jason Grumet, executive director of the National Commission on Energy Policy. But the new energy bill brought energy hawks, environmental advocates, states, and consumers together into "a new political equation," he says.

That breakthrough sets wheels in motion for a series of shifts and battles in months that will reinvigorate national energy policy, observers say. Issues coming to the fore as a result of the new energy law include:

•Climate cap-and-trade: Because energy use and emissions go hand in hand, the new energy law accelerates debate over regulating carbon-dioxide emissions across the US economy. Key legislation, such as the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act, would require a cap-and-trade system to cut CO2 emissions 15 percent below current levels by 2020. The bill already has significant support and, despite White House opposition, debate over the measure is expected as soon as January.

•Climate tailpipe regulation: By year end, Environmental Protection Agency chief Stephen Johnson is expected to respond to an April Supreme Court ruling that the EPA has authority to regulate greenhouse gases. If the EPA grants California a waiver, the Golden State and 16 others could crack down on carbon-dioxide emissions from passenger vehicles – putting more pressure on automakers.

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