WASHINGTON — In a major step toward the use of alternative fuels for cars and trucks, the House voted overwhelmingly Monday for legislation that would require the federal government to buy vehicles able to burn ethanol and methanol products beginning in 1990.
The bill, which was approved on a 327-29 vote, would also make the fuel available to the public at a limited number of gasoline stations around the country and relax federal mileage-efficiency requirements for new vehicles that are able to use such products.
Democrats and Republicans alike said that the bill would reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil and stimulate the growth of the alternate fuel industry in America. But the $28-million measure faces an uncertain future in the Senate, and White House energy advisers have said that they will recommend a veto to President Reagan because of the proposal's cost.
"This is a bill to at least get us started down the road of alternate fuel use," Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Greenbrae) said. "We've talked about it for years. Now it's time to act."
Several sponsors, seeking to dampen fears about an unknown product, noted that the federal bill would essentially duplicate a California program that has been testing a fleet of 500 alcohol-fuel vehicles. The state also plans to test trucks and buses that use the products and to buy 5,000 more flexible-fuel cars, vans and light trucks in the coming years.
Under the legislation, the Energy Department would be required to ensure that, starting in 1990, federal agencies would have to purchase the "maximum practicable" number of cars able to use alcohol fuels such as methanol, which can be made from coal, natural gas, wood or trash, or ethanol, made primarily from corn and other grains. The government could also comply with the legislation by purchasing "dual-energy vehicles" capable of using alternate products as well as gasoline and diesel fuel.
To stimulate commercial production of such vehicles, the bill would relax federal mileage requirements for new "alternate fuel" cars. Currently, those regulations require that all new cars average at least 26 miles per gallon.
That provision, however, was denounced by a coalition of environmental groups that said it would exempt new cars from fuel-efficiency standards that have helped America cut imports of foreign oil by 1 million barrels a day and have also reduced air pollution.
Critics noted that the bill requires new vehicles to be able to burn alternate fuels but does not specify that they actually use them. As a result, the measure would "result in less energy conservation and no substitution of alternative fuels," the groups said in a joint letter to members of Congress.
Sponsors of the bill, including Rep. Philip R. Sharp (D-Ind.), pledged to ensure that the legislation "in its final form" would restore prevailing fuel-efficiency standards and guarantee that alternate fuel vehicles meet the same standards as other cars.
Senate Weighs Issue
They explained that the Senate is considering similar legislation and promised to attach such provisions if and when the House and Senate reconcile their different versions.
"Based on those kinds of assurances, I can support this bill," Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica) said. "Nobody denies the importance of getting us started on an alternative fuel program . . . but we don't want to undermine the fuel efficiency program either."
The legislation was also praised as a way to reduce air pollution in Los Angeles and other congested urban areas. If the public becomes enamored of alternate fuel vehicles, it (the bill) would "become a real boon for Southern California. . . . It would help reduce smog," said Rep. Carlos J. Moorhead (R-Glendale).
Others, however, blasted the bill as a boondoggle program that would commit the federal government to supporting an untested new industry.
"This is just another federal subsidy we don't need," Rep. Robert S. Walker (R-Pa.) said, predicting that the White House would veto the bill because of its cost.