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House Moves to Cut SUV Gas Guzzling

Energy: Bill seeks to save 5 billion gallons by 2010. But critics say it doesn't go far enough.

July 13, 2001|RICHARD SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — After years of resisting any increase in fuel economy standards, House GOP leaders moved Thursday to require makers of sport-utility vehicles to save 5 billion gallons of gasoline by the end of the decade.

The House energy and air quality subcommittee made the fuel-saving directive a centerpiece of an energy bill moving rapidly through Congress, but it did not order a specific miles-per-gallon increase in the popular gas-gulping SUVs. Instead, federal transportation officials would be left the job of figuring out how the auto industry would meet the goal.

Environmentalists dismissed the action as a modest step. They calculated that it would amount to an increase of no more than about 1 mpg in the fuel economy standard for SUVs.

"That's nothing," said David Friedman, senior analyst of the Union of Concerned Scientists' clean vehicle program, contending that the measure would set weaker standards than some vehicle makers are already moving toward.

Supporters of the measure said it represented the equivalent of removing all new SUVs and minivans from the road for two years.

Regardless of which side is right, the action represented a turning point for members of the Republican-controlled House, which has blocked any increase in vehicle fuel economy standards since 1995. With polls showing strong public support for tougher rules and Republicans under attack for giving short shrift to energy conservation, even the most ardent supporters of U.S. auto makers sensed a changing political mood.

Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) supported the directive, despite opposition from his home-state auto industry, because "the alternatives are vastly worse."

"American auto makers and their workers have no stronger or consistent advocate in the Congress than I," Dingell said. "I know they do not support this measure. . . . But the hard facts are that legislation is moving now . . . and irresponsible alternatives, with their pie-in-the-sky notions of what auto makers can manufacture and sell, could do real damage."

Several congressional Democrats vowed to press to increase the fuel economy for light trucks, a category that includes SUVs, minivans and pickups, to 40 mpg in about a decade. In the Senate, Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) are pushing legislation to require SUVs to meet the same fuel economy standards by 2007 that passengers cars meet today.

Subcommittee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) admitted that a 5-billion-gallon reduction in the 600 billion gallons of gasoline expected to be used over a five-year period is not a high number. But he called it a significant first step.

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who has called for much tougher standards, said, "It's a step in the right direction, but I don't think it's what a crisis calls for."

Passenger cars currently must meet a "corporate average fuel economy" standard of 27.5 mpg. SUVs, minivans and pickups are permitted to meet an average of 20.7 mpg.

When the fuel economy law was enacted in 1975, light trucks were used largely for hauling cargo. But for vehicles in the model year 2000, the overall average fuel economy fell to 24 mpg, the lowest since 1980, as SUVs have become increasingly popular in the last decade.

The measure would direct the Transportation Department to establish standards for model years 2004 through 2010 that would save at least 5 billion gallons of gasoline compared with the standards in place for 2002.

The Bush administration has chosen to await the results of a National Academy of Sciences study expected to be completed soon on how stricter fuel efficiency rules would affect passenger safety and U.S. auto industry jobs, among other issues.

But White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said after the committee vote, "The administration shares the committee view that the time has come to move forward on improving fuel efficiency standards through the Department of Transportation administrative process," and in a way that will take into account the National Academy of Sciences findings.

Car makers have contended that tougher standards could lead to a lighter, less powerful and higher-priced SUV--a vehicle that consumers don't want and won't buy.

Environmentalists have called tougher fuel economy standards the single biggest step that Congress can take to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and lessen carbon dioxide emissions, a gas linked to global warming.

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