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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Fuel Economy Fight

Air Date: Week of June 8, 2007

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After decades of idling in neutral, U.S. auto fuel efficiency standards could soon kick into high gear. Congress appears poised to raise requirements forcing automakers to offer more high-mileage cars and trucks. But Detroit is betting on powerful allies on Capitol Hill to put up some roadblocks. Living on Earth's Jeff Young reports from Washington.

Transcript

GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts—this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman, in for Steve Curwood. After sitting in neutral for two decades, fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks could soon get a jump-start.

For years US automakers have effectively resisted attempts in Congress to increase standards for what’s called CAFE, short for corporate average fuel economy. Now, concerns about high gas prices and global warming are pushing Congress to act. But automakers and their Democratic allies are pushing back. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young tells us some powerful motor city lawmakers want to weaken mileage standards and prevent states from regulating the greenhouse gases coming out of cars.

YOUNG: Thirty-five miles per gallon by the year 2020: That’s the fuel economy standard the US Senate will soon consider. It would be the biggest mileage boost in decades. And it brought the CEOs of Detroit’s Big 3 automakers to Capitol Hill.
General motor’s chief Rick Wagoner told senators at a luncheon that kind of increase could cost thousands of dollars for every car GM makes. Wagoner argued instead for things like more alternative fuels.

WAGONER: We can and we will improve fuel efficiency. We think there are ways to do it that are smarter than just the exclusive reliance on CAFE.

YOUNG: It’s an approach that’s worked for Wagoner in the past. But this year the auto industry’s not getting much traction on the Hill, even among Senators who voted its way in the past, like North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan.

DORGAN: I have previously voted against CAFE standards but I just want you to know I think the issue is over, I think you’ve lost that issue. I think your position is yesterday forever.

YOUNG: Senators heaped on the criticism. After that less than appetizing lunch, GM’s
Wagoner told reporters he could see the writing on the wall.

WAGONER: My sense is there will be increases in CAFE so I’m not coming from a good bargaining position to say anything other than I expect that that is going to happen.

YOUNG: But Detroit’s leaders are hoping for some escape clauses in the legislation and they’re counting on some powerful Democrats to provide them. In the Senate that’s Carl Levin of Michigan who argues that CAFE standards discriminate against US automakers, who tend to make more trucks.

LEVIN: It’s perverse. It works against American jobs without a darn bit of benefit to the air.

YOUNG: Levin proposes an alternative with lower mileage targets and more time for the industry to meet them. It would also let automakers avoid efficiency rules if they pledge to use advanced technology. Automakers are also fighting back with a million dollar ad campaign.

AD SOUND: Why can’t they let me make the choice? I’m all for better fuel economy but safety is my top concern.

YOUNG: This radio ad airing in a dozen states dusts off one of the industry’s arguments: that higher miles per gallon means reduced safety.

ANNOUNCER: Contact your senators. Tell them fuel economy is important but we shouldn’t put safety in the back seat.

YOUNG: But a number of recent studies cast doubt on this “blood-on-the-highway” argument. Tom Wenzel is a scientist who studies auto-safety for Lawrence Berkley
National Laboratory. Wenzel co-wrote a new report by the International Council on Clean Transportation summarizing the latest research.

WENZEL: There are many technologies available to improve fuel economy that would have no effect on vehicle safety. So we shouldn’t let the old argument that high fuel economy vehicles necessarily mean less safe vehicles. We shouldn’t let that stand in the way of increasing the fuel economy of the new vehicle fleet.

YOUNG: Recent opinion polls show strong support for boosting mileage and acting on global warming. A dozen states have responded with proposed rules limiting greenhouse gas emissions from autos. California led the way and got a big boost from a landmark Supreme Court ruling this spring in the case Massachusetts versus EPA. The Justices said the Clean Air Act gives the government authority to regulate those tailpipe emissions. In an unexpected twist in the fuel efficiency debate, a top lawmaker is now trying to block that Supreme Court ruling and those states that would use it to control global warming pollution.

DINGELL: We need one good strong regulator. We don’t need a whole lot of people messing around.

YOUNG: That’s Congressman John Dingell of Michigan--one of the most senior
Democrats in Congress, chair of the powerful House Energy Committee, and a staunch defender of the auto industry in his home state. Dingell says the Supreme Court decision will bring a regulatory mess.

DINGELL: The Supreme court didn’t do anything constructive. All it did was say that the Congress had not done a good job in drafting the legislation. Let me remind you, I wrote the clean air law. I know what the congress intended. We are returning to what congress intended and to a system which, in fact, will work.

YOUNG: The attorneys general of 14 states oppose Dingell’s proposal, as does the second highest-ranking Democrat in the House Energy Committee, Ed Markey of
Massachusetts.

MARKEY: This bill is cutting the legs out from under the states just as they are starting to sprint forward on carbon pollution regulation.

YOUNG: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California also says she could not support a bill that blocks states from regulating greenhouse gases from autos. That could set up a battle between two of the most powerful Democratic leaders, Pelosi and Dingell. It also means the road to higher fuel standards has a few bumps ahead.

For Living on Earth I’m Jeff Young in Washington.

 

Links

International Council on Clean Transportation report on fuel economy and auto safety

Union of Concerned Scientists on clean vehicles

Automakers on fuel economy

House Energy Committee's proposed energy legislation

Senate Commerce Committee fuel economy bill

LOE Interview with Lisa Heinzerling, Georgetown Law Professor who wrote the brief for "Massachusetts vs. EPA"

LOE coverage of the fallout from Supreme Court decision in favor of Massachusetts

 

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