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Clustering is an effective approach to hierarchically organizing network topology for efficient data aggregation in wireless sensor networks. Distributed protocols with simple local computations to accomplish a desired global goal, offer a good prospect for achieving energy efficiency. This paper presents MEPA - an energy-efficient distributed clustering protocol using simple and local message-passing rules. Our proposed clustering protocol combines both node residual energy and network topology features to recursively elect a near-optimal set of cluster heads. Simulation results show that MEPA can produce a set of cluster heads with compelling characteristics, and effectively prolong the network lifetime.