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The Bush administration and Congress have spent a lot of time this year talking about ways to reduce the nation's dependence on imported oil. They've called for legislation to encourage more manufacturers and car buyers to switch to cleaner, homegrown alternative fuels such as ethanol. Thing is, there's already such a law on the books.

But as NPR's Kathleen Schalch reports, it's about to be rolled back.

KATHLEEN SCHALCH: Congress set a goal in 1992. It wanted to replace 30 percent of gasoline with alternative fuels by the year 2010. But that's not going to happen. The Department of Energy yesterday proposed a new rule to extend that deadline by 20 years.

Mr. DANA O'HARA (Department of Energy): 2030.

SCHALCH: 2030. That's the new goal according to Dana O'Hara of the energy department. He says, to comply with the original timetable, the U.S. would in the next three years have to replace three quarters of all passenger cars on the road.

Mr. O'HARA: If we had the perfect car today and started selling them, it would take 20 years for us to have a hundred percent of the new technology out there, if not longer.

SCHALCH: That's true, according to Lester Lave, an expert on the economics of alternative fuels at Carnegie Mellon University. Right now, Lave says alternative fuels, including ethanol, make up just two percent of the motor vehicle fuel used in this country.

Dr. LESTER LAVE (Carnegie Mellon University): And current congressional mandates would get us up to about four percent. So the 1992 goal was really wild in terms of anything that we've been able to achieve.

SCHALCH: More could have been done, according to critics. Kassie Siegel is with the Center for Biological Diversity.

Ms. KASSIE SIEGEL (Center for Biological Diversity): The Department of Energy, which was charged with implementing a plan to achieve this goal of 30 percent replacement of petroleum fuel, simply ignored the law.

SCHALCH: The Center for Biological Diversity sued the Energy Department and other federal agencies for failing to comply with one provision of the law that required up to three quarters of new government vehicles to run on alternative fuel. But even that would have been just a drop in the bucket. Dana O'Hara of the Department of Energy says the law didn't set mandates or standards to force the private sector to make or buy alternative fuel.

Mr. O'HARA: There's nothing in there that really says DE has the authority to make these goals and these timetables happen.

SCHALCH: Then who is in charge of making it happen?

Mr. O'HARA: I don't know.

SCHALCH: O'Hara says there was another huge problem. When congress passed the law, oil prices seemed destined to go up. Instead, they plummeted. By 1998, they dropped to $10 a barrel. O'Hara says alternative fuels just weren't commercially viable.

Mr. O'HARA: In some of our study showed that no amount of incentives that you could come up with is going to promote this stuff.

SCHALCH: The Department of Energy yesterday held a public hearing to explain its proposed 20 year extension. Hardly anyone showed up. Environmental groups weren't there, and most asked in an informal NPR survey weren't familiar with the alternative fuel provisions of the 1992 law. Only one person at the hearing, a man holding a bicycle helmet, really objected to the proposed change. His name is David Angler, and he said he spoke as a private citizen.

Mr. DAVID ANGLER: This is scandalous. Shame. Shame on the Department of Energy.

SCHALCH: Another audience member did ask politely whether the same group were just going to wind up in the same hearing room, doing the same thing 20 years from now. But the energy department official said with technology advancing and oil prices likely to stay high, the new goal of 30 percent alternative fuel by 2030 can be achieved.

Kathleen Schalch, NPR News, Washington.

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