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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Fuel Efficiency

Air Date: Week of

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The federal government is on the verge of raising fuel efficiency standards for the first time since 1975. Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports on why lawmakers are finally ready to do something.


CURWOOD: As the rest of the world moves ahead on the Kyoto Accord without the United States, it may seem that the U.S is doing little to address climate change. But in Washington there is action underway that would help curb our greenhouse gas emissions. For the first time since 1975, Congress is moving to raise fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks. As Living On Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports, the auto makers themselves are partly responsible for this change.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: For 26 years, American automakers have managed to hold corporate average fuel economy -- or CAFE -- standards at a virtual standstill. They convinced the public, as well as Congress, that such a move would hurt the industry and consumers. Then last year, automakers tried a different sort of tactic to avoid stricter CAFE legislation. They promised voluntary improvements. Mike Flynn directs the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan.

FLYNN: You have to really go back to last August, when partially in reaction to the escalation of gas prices, especially in the Midwest, both Ford and GM made announcements of committing themselves to rather dramatic increases in the fuel economy of some of their heavier vehicles -- notably sport utility vehicles. That got a lot of press and people said "Good move."

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Flynn says the car companies set themselves up for trouble by bragging that they could and would make a more efficient product by 2005. Then gas prices settled back down for a bit, and the issue lost its urgency. George W. Bush was elected, and for the first time in six years, automakers didn't bother urging Congress to block a CAFE increase. Mike Rogers is a Republican congressman from Michigan, and a friend to the industry. He says the car companies liked the post-election landscape in Washington -- so much so, they got complacent.

ROGERS: Well all of them, quite frankly, fell asleep at the switch. I think they assumed that nothing would happen on CAFE in the White House, mainly because -- I believe -- that Andrew Card, a former executive with General Motors, was the Chief of Staff. I think it was obviously a bad assumption.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The industry's inaction, says Rogers, sent a message to lawmakers.

ROGERS: That, hey, we don't care if you raise CAFE standards. It won't have any impact on us. And when that happened, this whole thing blew up. And I went to them and said "You are in big trouble."

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: When President Bush declared an energy crisis, the issue of fuel efficiency gained renewed attention. Mike Flynn says the White House simply couldn't afford not to at least consider the CAFE issue.

FLYNN: The administration comes in. It is perceived by much of the press, and much of the public, as being not particularly sympathetic to various environmental efforts. At the same time, there's growing momentum in the country for increases in fuel economy. And for the administration, I think, it's a relatively easy step to make that at least sends a message that whatever we do with Kyoto, you know, we are concerned about global warming. And here we are saying it's time to do something in the conservation area.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: In Congress, too, CAFE is catching hold. Members saw the public react strongly against remarks from Vice President Cheney, saying that efficiency is merely a personal virtue. Even congressmen from the Midwest, whose districts have been traditionally been dominated by the Big Three car companies, are finding their constituents increasingly concerned about conservation. Dan Becker directs the Sierra Club's Global Warming and Energy Program. He says lawmakers are realizing the political advantage of appearing green.

BECKER: And they're feeling a lot of heat, because their constituents are reacting against the President's proposals on energy policy. So they've been telling their leaders in Congress "I want to be able to vote for something that proves that I'm for the environment, that I want to do something about energy, and unlike the President, I'm not in the hip pocket of the oil and auto industries."

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Those leaders appear to be listening, even those who fought for years against higher standards. Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott says he's now open to some type of increase. And the industry's old friends, too, concede the standoff's over. Now they'll focus on keeping the increase to a minimum. At a recent House Committee meeting, Michigan Democrat John Dingell spoke in favor of a bill that would require auto makers to save five billion gallons of gas over six years on new SUVs and other light trucks.

DINGELL: I support the Amendment. Not because I love it, but because any alternative that I've been able to find is significantly worse. But the hard facts are that legislation is moving now to.... [FADES UNDER]

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: At the other end of the spectrum, Democratic Representatives Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Henry Waxman of California want to raise fuel standards to 40 miles per gallon for all vehicles within 15 years. Ford's promise last year on its SUVs would put the company on target to meet that goal. Current standards are 27.5 for passenger cars and 20.7 for SUVs and other light trucks. Waxman says the five billion gallon idea translates into a measly one mile per gallon increase.

WAXMAN: I'm not sure if it's a step forward or a step back.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The final outcome may depend on the not so usual suspects: people like Republican Representative Joe Barton of Texas. Barton's not known for pleasing environmentalists, and he voted against Waxman and Markey's higher increase. But he worried that Dingle and others are aiming too low.

BARTON: We use about 130,000,000,000 gallons of gasoline every year in this country for transportation purposes. And 5,000,000,000 over a five-year period out of well over the 600,000,000,000 gallons, is not a high number. I would like to go further.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Some observers say Barton's expression of concern was simply rhetoric meant to make Republicans look softer on the issue. After all was said and done, Barton voted for the five billion gallon mark. Meanwhile, President Bush has been fending off CAFE questions by saying he's waiting for a federal panel to finish a study on the subject. The report, commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences, is due out at the end of July. But now, a draft copy has been leaked, and it tells the White House, yes, it's time to increase CAFE. President Bush says he isn't taking a position until after the official NAS report is released. But environmental groups were pleased with the leaked version. They criticized the NAS for weighting the panel with auto and oil interests. But the report takes a fairly aggressive stance toward the car companies. It counters the industry's claim that making vehicles more efficient will also make them less safe. And it warns them against using improved technology to add power and heft, rather than efficiency. Mike Flynn, of the University of Michigan, says supporters of a CAFE increase have reason to be pleased.

FLYNN: To the extent that the leaked version of the report is accurate, and if it is also accurate that this is a panel that one would describe as industry-friendly, it says the pressure on Congress and the President to raise CAFE will be extraordinary.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Debate on CAFE Legislation will continue on the House floor in early August. For Living On Earth, I'm Anna Solomon-Greenbaum in Washington.




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