Evening Newscasts Not Sure Energy Bill is Enough

     President Bush just signed an epic energy bill that will increase fuel efficiency standards in automobiles, increase biofuel requirements for gasoline, and phase out incandescent light bulbs. Two network newscasts couldn’t decide if the “massive” changes are enough.


     ABC “World News” anchor Charlie Gibson introduced a December 18 story on the bill noting that “in the words of one lawmaker, the law increases energy efficiency in everything from light bulbs to light trucks. The goal is to reduce the nation’s dependency on foreign oil. But will it?”


     Gibson wasn’t asking whether any of the bill’s provisions will actually do anything, or whether they’ll have negative impacts on the economy that could cancel out any positive impacts. He was asking whether the higher standards and more stringent regulation are enough government intervention.


     The Congressional Budget Office estimates the bill will cost $582 million in direct government spending over the next 4 years, but will eventually reduce future deficits by $446 million in the next 10 years. That doesn’t include the cost to businesses and individuals who must adapt to a “greener” lifestyle.

     Reporter Lisa Stark said the bill “could impact everything from the kind of cars we drive to the amount of energy we use in our homes.” The truth is it will, not “could.” The bill includes the first vehicle efficiency adjustment in 32 years, raising standards 40 percent to 35 miles per gallon in the next 13 years. (Only two vehicles – the Toyota Prius and the Honda Accord Hybrid – currently meet that standard, according to Stark.)


     It pumps up biofuel mandates – requirements for biofuels like ethanol to be mixed in with gasoline – to 35 billion gallons a year. And the bill phases out incandescent light bulbs, paving the way for more expensive, yet more efficient, high-tech light bulbs like compact fluorescents (CFLs) and halogen lights.


     While in one breath declaring provisions of the bill “dramatic,” Stark in another breath said it was is “a very modest, gradual improvement.”


     She gave environmentalists a platform to suggest the bill didn’t go far enough – without bothering to reveal their pro-government, anti-business biases.


     Starks’s report featured input from “experts” Karen Wayland of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Joan Claybrook of Public Citizen. Neither “expert” was identified as a spokeswoman for a left-wing or anti-industry organization.


     The NRDC calls itself “the Earth’s best defense” and supports government implementation of “green” living. According to its Web site, its priorities include addressing global warming, moving “beyond oil” and fighting toxic chemicals. Public Citizen has a broader liberal agenda, opposing free trade and supporting government-run health insurance in addition to promoting “green” environmental policies.


     But guess who did get a label. Stark made sure to note that Ron DeFore of SUV Owners of America is “allied with the auto industry.”


     DeFore was given 10 seconds to mention that “consumers will get more miles per gallon with this bill. But they will not save money. Most consumers will pay thousands of dollars more for the vehicles of the future,” before Stark returned to Wyland for more pro-regulation input.


     But at least Stark gave an opponent of the bill 10 seconds. Over on NBC, “Nightly News” reporter Anne Thompson didn’t do that much. Thompson noted that “critics say [fuel efficiency standards] won’t be easy to meet for domestic and foreign manufacturers.”


     But she gave face time to David Hamilton of the Sierra Club, another left-wing group that pushes for more government regulation of just about everything. She also quoted an NRDC statement praising the bill but calling for more regulation.


     Thompson noted the bill “dramatically” changes current standards and includes a “massive increase” in biofuels mandates, but didn’t bother to question whether Hamilton’s pledge to keep pushing for more regulation might be taking it too far.


     Neither network mentioned other possible negative effects of the bill, specifically supply-and-demand problems caused by ethanol mandates, which double from 7 billion gallons to 14 billion gallons under the new bill.


     The networks have reported higher prices at the grocery store – the “CBS Evening News” had a report on the trend December 17 – but failed to explain the ethanol mandates are a big contributor to higher demand and lower supply.


      “I think a very high percentage of the blame is directly attributable to the mandate,” Max Schulz, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said.


      “Congress passed this mandate in 2005 to stipulate that we have 7 billion gallons of ethanol mixed into our fuel mix, and it was passed without really any discussion in Congress of what the effects of it were going to be,” Schulz told the Business & Media Institute, “and two years into it we have seen prices go up not just at the pump, although they have gone up there, but also throughout the economy.”


     And Schulz predicted even higher prices in the future because of the increased mandates in the new energy bill.


      “[T]hat’s not going to do anything to bring down prices at the pump,” Schulz said, “and it’s also going to have a further kind of serious effect driving agricultural prices higher as well.”


     Perhaps ABC and NBC should’ve have followed CBS. The “Evening News” didn’t even mention the bill in its broadcast.

The Papers


     To their credit, newspapers did a better job representing both sides of the debate over the bill. Before the jump from a front-page story December 19, The Washington Post referred to the bill as “modest.” After the jump, the story used words like “dramatic,” “sweeping,” “windfall” and “massive.”


     It also noted the bill “doubles the use of corn-based ethanol – despite criticism that corn-based ethanol is driving up food prices, draining aquifers and exacerbating fertilizer runoff that is creating dead zones in many of the nation’s rivers.”


     The Post said the biofuels mandate “could cost the federal government as much as $140 billion over 15 years,” a fact none of the networks reported.

     The New York Times reported the story on page A16, leading with analysis of the bill suggesting it will “slowly but significantly change the cars Americans drive, the fuel they burn, they way they light their homes and the price they pay for food.”


     The Times noted early in its story that the bill’s full costs “will not be known for years. Critics say it will make cars and trucks less safe and more expensive, divert farmland to costly production of feedstock for ethanol and other synthetic fuels, and raise the price of food because of competition for corn and grain between food producers and fuel refiners.”