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


Air Date: Week of

How far should American automobiles go on a gallon of gas? Living on Earth’s Anna Solomon-Greenbaum talks with host Steve Curwood about the debate in Washington over fuel efficiency standards.


CURWOOD: Massachusetts Senator John Kerry is among the critics on Capitol Hill who say that while the Freedom Car is a noble idea, they also believe the administration is using it as a stalling tactic to avoid tougher fuel standards under CAFE. In a recent speech, Senator Kerry offered these words of skepticism.

KERRY: No one knows yet in this budget climate what the level of their commitment will be. And second, the administration's initiative is no substitute whatsoever for modernizing our CAFE standards. We need and should have both.

CURWOOD: Joining me to discuss the debate over CAFE standards is Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum in Washington. Anna, could you please bring us up to date?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, CAFE standards are now at twenty-seven and a half miles per gallon for passenger cars, and at 20.7 miles per gallon for light trucks. This includes SUV's. These rules were introduced in the 70's, and they haven't been changed significantly since then. At this point, in 2002, our average fuel economy as a nation is actually at its lowest point in twenty years. Now, the Department of Transportation is supposed to reconsider the standards every year. But, since 1996, Congress has basically put a hold on the department that blocks it from doing that.

CURWOOD: Now, Anna, I understand that this year Congress lifted that ban, but then the Department of Transportation itself came out with the results of its reconsideration and is now saying it will not seek to raise CAFE standards for 2004.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: That's right, Steve. And just last week in a letter to Congress, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta says he wants to change the CAFE program itself. So, there are pretty strong signals here, I think, that the administration is not looking to raise CAFE standards, at least not within the current system.

CURWOOD: Well, what does the administration want to do?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, they've put a few possibilities on the table. One is that fuel economy targets would be based on a vehicle's weight and size, and not on the broader categories they have now. You know, just passenger vehicle or light truck.

They're also talking about allowing auto manufacturers to trade fuel economy credits so that one company that makes more high efficiency vehicles could, for instance, sell its credits to another company that makes more less efficient vehicles like trucks and SUV's.

CURWOOD: Now, what about the people who want to see CAFE raised, how are they responding to this?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, on Capitol Hill, as you might imagine, lawmakers are calling this a sort of shell game. They say the administration has seen the momentum that's been building in the Senate for a CAFE increase as part of the energy bill. And that it's, basically, trying to avoid that by changing the topic, changing the system altogether. Environmental groups echo this.

They also point out that in the Clinton administration the auto industry wanted to keep the president and his folks out of the fuel economy debate. Now, they want this administration to get involved. And the administration seems to be doing that. Here's David Friedman. He's a senior analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

FRIEDMAN: Our greatest concern is that the administration is seeking to take over this process from a congress that is looking towards more aggressive and more realistic fuel economy standards.

CURWOOD: So, what about the auto industry? They've been resisting any kind of increase for years. What do they make of the secretary's proposal?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: I think they see that Mineta is suggesting changes here that could really address some of the aspects of CAFE that they've been objecting to for a long time. One of their chief complaints has been that to hit the CAFE standard, they have to sell lighter and, what they say are, less safe vehicles that consumers just don't want to buy. Here's Josephine Cooper. She's the CEO and president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

COOPER: There are probably thirty features that consumers ask for when they go into dealer showrooms. Number twenty-six down on that list is fuel economy.

CURWOOD: So, Anna, what happens now with the debate over CAFE in the next few weeks?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: I think first, Steve, you're going to see senators like John Kerry who we heard from before. Also, Arizona Republican John McCain, coming out with a bill to raise CAFE standards. It looks like they're going to propose something in the area of a thirty-seven mile per gallon standard for all vehicles. That would include light trucks. It's pretty ambitious.

But, even if it gets to the floor as part of the energy bill, it's going to face a hard fight from some of the auto industry's champions. And then, of course, whatever comes out of the Senate would have to go to conference with the House. We saw last fall that this House is quite unwilling to see much of anything in terms of a CAFE increase.

So, while I do think we're going to soon see the first significant CAFE debate in Congress in a long time, whether that will translate into an actual change in the standards, I think that's a long shot at this point.

CURWOOD: Anna Solomon-Greenbaum covers Washington for Living on Earth. Thanks, Anna.

GREENBAUM: You're welcome, Steve.

[MUSIC: Steve Roach, "Love Magick", SOMA (Hearts of Space - 1992]



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