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

Fuel Efficient SUVs

Air Date: Week of

Congress is about to vote on a measure that could be a first step toward requiring better fuel efficiency for sports utility vehicles. Steve Curwood spoke with bill sponsor Republican Senator Slade Gorton of Washington, who says that fuel efficiency standards have been stagnant for too long.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. You may love SUVs or hate them. Or you may be part of the crowd that feels ever so slightly guilty about using several tons of steel to pick up a quarter of milk, but enjoys the security of driving a tank. Now Congress is getting into the act or at least part of it, with the Senate soon to take up the question of SUV fuel efficiency. Since 1995, Congress has prohibited the Federal government from making rules that could see more fuel-efficient SUVs, even though half of all new passenger vehicles sold in the US today are sport utility vehicles or other light trucks. Current fuel efficiency standards for them are less stringent than those for cars. Some liberals and conservatives alike, including Washington State's Republican Senator Slade Gorton, say it's time to strike a new balance.

GORTON: The CAFE standard legislation that was implemented in the 1970s, up until about 1980, was one of the great social and environmental success stories of the last generation. And the pause has been entirely too long. We ought to have a second round, and we particularly need the second round because more and more Americans are buying these rather heavily-polluting and not very fuel efficient SUVs.

CURWOOD: Well, what have been the main obstacles to making these changes? Why has the House insisted on this rider for the last four or five years to prevent any changes?

GORTON: Fundamentally, the manufacturers don't like it, and their unions don't like it, and the manufacturers usually get conservatives and Republicans to listen to them. The unions get Democrats to listen to them, and gets the administration to listen to what they have to say. The public interest is a very, very faint voice in this debate. Is there a huge public demand for it? No. The overall economy of the United States, of course, is very good at the present time. This is not an issue that moves the average citizen very much, but it is something classically on which there needs to be political leadership, even in the absence of a huge and widespread public opinion.

CURWOOD: Senator Gorton, your record is not one of a big environmental advocate in the Senate, folks like the League of Conservation Voters say. I mean they give you a very low score. And in this case, you're a leading champion now of something that the Sierra Club is pushing, that many of the environmental advocacy groups are pushing. They say this is an important step to deal with the problem of global climate change. What is it about this issue that's brought you into concert with many groups with whom, well, frankly, often you've been in opposition?

GORTON: Simply this: I disagree with many of these groups. Like almost every senator, I'm opposed to the Kyoto agreements. Nevertheless, the problem of pollution and even the potential of global warming is something with which we have to be concerned. And when we can take a major step that reduces our emissions to the atmosphere and actually benefits the economy of the United States, by saving us a significant portion of our dependency on foreign oil, and ultimately saves money for consumers because they get better gas mileage for their cars, that's a winner in every direction. There's no one, literally no one, who loses.

CURWOOD: What is your situation on the environment? These groups criticize your stand on the environment. Is it fair to characterize you as an anti- environmental senator, generally?

GORTON: No, of course it's not. But what I don't like, with respect to some of these organizations, is that they propose measures to which other people have to sacrifice. They are, you know, largely urban and comfortable in nature, and many of their policies impose huge burdens on relatively voiceless people from small towns and rural areas around the country. And the burdens that they impose are disproportional. Policies like this one, however, have exactly the same impact on everyone in our society, and everyone can end up being a winner. There's a tremendous distinction between those two sets of policies.

CURWOOD: Can you share with us the kind of timetable you're looking for in terms of seeing new CAFE standards go into effect?

GORTON: No. Because it will take some time. The problem is, for the last 10 years or more, we've had these annual prohibitions against the administration even making any moves in that direction. If we were to remove that impediment, that wouldn't even require the Clinton administration to go forward. If it did, and if it did so enthusiastically, we're still looking at a process that will take at least a decade.

CURWOOD: You expressed a desire for Vice President Al Gore, who is that one more vote in the Senate on the tie, to join with you in this effort. Looking back at the records, would you say that Vice President Al Gore has a strong record on the environment?

GORTON: The Vice President of the United States certainly wishes to be an environmental president, certainly makes many speeches on the environment. This is an opportunity for him actually to affect votes both in the House of Representatives and in the Senate of the United States on a major environmental issue, and I'd like to see him willing to speak up.

CURWOOD: Senator Slade Gorton, Republican of Washington. Thank you, sir, for joining us.

GORTON: It's been a pleasure to talk to you today.



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