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Senate OKs hike in fuel economy

Times Staff Writer

Driven by anxiety over global warming and dependence on foreign oil, the Senate passed a major increase Thursday in the average fuel efficiency requirement for vehicles on U.S. roads -- to 35 miles per gallon from the current 25.

If enacted into law, the measure, which is part of a much broader energy bill that passed the Senate 65-27 just before midnight, would be the first hike in the fuel efficiency requirement for cars in nearly two decades.

Automakers would have to meet the new fleetwide standard by 2020.

The bipartisan Senate vote gave a powerful boost to the long-discussed proposal as the energy debate prepared to shift to the House next month. And strong GOP support for tougher fuel efficiency standards will probably increase pressure on President Bush to back such a plan.

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Cars and light trucks, including SUVs, pickups and vans, account for about a fifth of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.

“It’s just amazing,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a leading architect of the emissions plan who has been fighting for years to force automakers to increase the fuel efficiency of their vehicles. “I’m flabbergasted.”

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), who also worked on the compromise, called the strong support for it “a monumental change.”

White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said the new fuel efficiency standards are “a step in the right direction,” although the administration is still leery of a broad standard for all vehicles.

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A final energy bill may not make to the president’s desk until later this summer.

Passage of the Senate measure followed the collapse of two major initiatives many hoped would begin to turn Americans away from their heavy reliance on fossil fuels.

In the face of opposition from Republicans, Democratic leaders were forced to drop an expansive tax package that would have created $28.5 billion in incentives for the development of energy from renewable sources, such as the wind and sun.

Democrats also were unable to include in the bill a pathbreaking requirement that electric utilities nationwide generate 15% of their electricity from cleaner energy sources. Power plants account for about a third of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.

“I’m disappointed,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said after the setbacks. “Our wonderful world is being destroyed by fossil fuels.”

But the breakthrough on fuel efficiency standards could make this year’s energy bill the most significant in years. Advocates estimate that increased fuel efficiency could also reduce carbon dioxide emissions from autos by 18% by 2025.

Though the new standards attracted widespread support on both sides of the aisle, the broader bill passed only after frenzied late-night cajoling in the well of the Senate.

Twenty Republicans joined 43 Democrats and two independents backing the measure. Four Democrats and 23 Republicans -- many of whom objected to the bill’s lack of support for domestic oil and gas exploration -- opposed it.

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California Democrat Barbara Boxer was in California for the birth of her second grandchild and missed the vote.

All four Democratic presidential candidates in the Senate -- Delaware’s Joseph R. Biden Jr., Connecticut’s Christopher J. Dodd, New York’s Hillary Rodham Clinton and Illinois’ Barack Obama -- voted for the bill. GOP presidential hopefuls Sam Brownback of Kansas and John McCain of Arizona missed the vote.

Automakers have long complained that stricter standards would cost U.S. jobs, and year after year they succeeded in turning aside efforts to raise them.

Particularly galling to environmentalists, the industry clung to a lower fuel standard for light trucks, including sport utilities, pickups and minivans. Currently, an automaker’s car fleet must average 27.5 mpg. Light trucks must average 22.2 mpg, a standard that is scheduled to increase to 24 mpg by 2011.

This year, facing new pressure from the Democratic congressional majority and growing public concern about global warming, the auto industry and its allies on Capitol Hill conceded that some increase was possible. But they continued to fight efforts to eliminate the distinction between cars and trucks.

Thursday, senators from both parties resoundingly rejected that. Under the measure, cars and trucks will be lumped together to calculate the fuel efficiency of an automaker’s vehicles, requiring that the average 35 mpg standard be achieved by model year 2020.

Senators also voted to instruct the Department of Transportation to develop a plan to ensure that 50% of the vehicles sold in the U.S. be capable of using alternative fuels by 2015.

“Our message to the domestic auto industry is, ‘You can do this,’ ” said Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), another champion of the compromise.

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In one nod to the industry, the Senate abandoned a plan to require 4% annual increases in fuel efficiency from 2020 to 2031, giving federal regulators the discretion to increase standards “to the maximum feasible” level.

With Thursday’s Senate vote, the energy debate now moves to the House.

In that chamber, Democratic leaders are working to assemble their own package; it does not include new fuel standards, although several lawmakers have expressed interest in adding them.

The Senate’s bipartisan embrace of new standards also increases the likelihood that a final energy bill would include the provision.

Bush, who Thursday toured a newly reopened unit of a nuclear power plant in Alabama, has voiced concerns about a number of ideas being advocated by congressional Democrats, including lumping together cars and light trucks in setting fuel standards.

The president has also taken issue with a provision in the bill to make gasoline price-gouging a federal offense. And he has complained that Democratic energy proposals would do little to promote domestic production of oil and gas at a time when consumers face rising gas prices.

“The current plan being debated in the Senate falls far short,” Bush said Thursday before the bill passed, as he called for more nuclear power plants and more oil exploration in U.S. coastal waters and in Alaska.

“As we talk about new technologies, we’re still going to need oil and gas,” he said. “And we can explore for oil and gas in environmentally friendly ways.”

Congressional Republicans have also consistently demanded more oil and gas exploration.

Democratic leaders, casting energy as a national security issue, have focused on strengthening federal efforts to encourage the use of renewable sources of energy.

On a visit to the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Athens, Ala., Bush chose to highlight the advantages of nuclear power.

“Nuclear power is safe,” he said as he visited the first nuclear power plant unit to come on line in the past decade. “Nuclear energy produces no greenhouse gases. If you are interested in cleaning up the air, then you ought to be an advocate for nuclear power.”

Currently, 103 nuclear plants -- including Diablo Canyon near San Luis Obispo and San Onofre in northern San Diego County -- generate about 20% of the nation’s electricity.

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noam.levey@latimes.com

Times staff writers Richard Simon and James Gerstenzang contributed to this report.


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