Senate panel OKs bill to boost fuel efficiency standard
In a sign of congressional concern over near record-high gasoline prices and global warming, a Senate committee Tuesday approved legislation calling for the most significant increase in vehicle fuel efficiency in decades.
The measure would boost the fleetwide average fuel economy standards to 35 mpg by 2020, up from 25. It now goes to the Senate, where a similar measure was defeated two years ago after heavy lobbying by automakers.
This time, however, the bill was being backed by a number of lawmakers who previously opposed tougher standards. And it comes when congressional Democratic leaders have pledged to pass legislation to address climate change.
Cars and light trucks, including sport utility vehicles, pickups and vans, account for about one-fifth of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.
“This marks a pretty significant change in the Congress,” said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), who has voted against tougher fuel-economy rules but is now sponsoring legislation to raise the standards.
The bill’s approval by the Senate Commerce Committee marked only the opening round, with lawmakers from vehicle-manufacturing states vowing to fight a measure they believe could hurt the struggling U.S. auto industry. Environmental groups also assailed the bill, contending that it contained loopholes that could lead to lower increases than promised.
The bill represents the first major revision of the fuel-economy program established during the oil price shocks of the 1970s. It would require the nationwide fleet of cars and light trucks sold in the country to average 35 mpg by 2020. A 4% annual increase in fuel economy would be required for vehicles made from 2021 to 2030.
The legislation, however, would give the Transportation Department latitude to permit a lower standard if it determined that the costs of imposing stricter rules outweighed the benefits.
Currently, each automaker’s car fleet must average 27.5 mpg, a requirement that has not changed for about 18 years, and light trucks must average 22.2 mpg, which will go to 24 by 2011.
The action came as gas prices moved back to center stage on Capitol Hill, with Democrats and Republicans sparring over each other’s record in seeking to bring down energy costs.
Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations, announced that his panel would examine the causes behind fluctuations in fuel prices.
During Tuesday’s Senate Commerce Committee meeting, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) recalled driving past a filling station in San Francisco last weekend.
“We couldn’t believe our eyes -- $4.25 a gallon!” she said.
Desperate to do something to respond to the high prices, the committee attached to the fuel-economy bill a measure that would establish new federal penalties for gas price-gouging.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), among the leading advocates for stricter fuel economy rules, cheered the committee vote.
“Legislation to improve fuel economy has been bottled up for more than two decades,” she said. “Now we have a realistic chance at a strong bill that increases fuel economy by 10 mpg over 10 years -- and 4% a year beyond that.”
Environmentalists were less enthusiastic.
“On the one hand, it’s a start,” said Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club’s global warming program. “On the other hand, it’s a pretty weak start. It doesn’t actually require the administration to act, so there is no guarantee that fuel economy goes up.”
Joan Claybrook, a former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration who is now president of the watchdog group Public Citizen, called the bill “a political compromise that now compromises the very purpose of the fuel economy program.”
They pledged to work to strengthen the measure as it moves through Congress, though that could set up a veto showdown with President Bush. Bush has called for tougher fuel economy rules, but opposes Congress mandating a standard.
Feinstein, however, said the only way that the full benefits of the bill would not be achieved was “if the government shows that the costs to the country as a whole would be greater than the benefits.” And she added: “I believe this would be highly unlikely given the spike in gasoline prices, the national security and environmental costs of our oil dependency, and the huge fuel savings that would be achieved as a result of this bill.”
Auto industry officials called the tougher standards “unattainable” and contended that they would deny consumers the SUVs they cherish.
“If higher standards make vehicles less attractive to consumers, vehicle sales will drop, negatively impacting auto dealers, suppliers, automakers and the U.S. economy,” the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an industry trade group, said in a letter to lawmakers.
The United Auto Workers also opposed the measure.
Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, the committee’s top Republican, said the bill was “not perfect, but it is a constructive step toward addressing the nation’s energy crisis and reducing our dependence on foreign oil.”