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Lieberman Focuses on Fuel Efficiency

Democratic presidential hopeful would use incentives to push car makers to increase gas mileage and thus reduce the use of foreign oil.

May 08, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Looking to solidify his credentials as both an environmentalist and centrist, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) on Wednesday proposed to rely heavily on economic incentives to reduce America's dependence on foreign oil.

Speaking to an audience of environmentalists, the candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination offered a plan that he said would reduce U.S. reliance on foreign oil by two-thirds at the end of this decade and completely eliminate the need for such imports by 2020.

The cornerstone of Lieberman's plan would advance a familiar environmental goal in a new way. He proposed requiring manufacturers to significantly increase the fuel economy of cars and trucks by 2015, but to provide the industry with increased flexibility and economic incentives to meet that goal.

"For too long, our economy and our security have been at the mercy of foreign oil producers," Lieberman told a large audience at Resources for the Future, a Washington-based environmental think tank. "I'm not going to let foreign countries cripple our families' budgets by running up heating bills and what we pay at the pump [for gasoline]."

Lieberman also called for a 10-year, $15-billion federal effort to find ways to use coal with less pollution. "We are literally sitting on the energy we need to be energy independent," he said.

And he proposed that utilities be required to purchase 20% of their electricity from renewable sources, such as solar and wind power, by 2020.

With his speech, Lieberman joined two of his rivals in the Democratic presidential race -- Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri -- in promising a major push to reduce the reliance on foreign oil, primarily through conservation and the development of renewable energy sources. All the blueprints are in stark contrast to President Bush's energy agenda, which has focused on increasing domestic production of oil, coal and gas.

Throughout his Senate career, Lieberman has been a favorite of environmentalists. But some environmental groups gave his new proposal only mixed reviews. These environmental leaders expressed ambivalence about his reliance on market mechanisms for improving auto fuel efficiency and opposition to his goal of increasing the use of domestic coal.

"While on the one hand the Lieberman plan is head and shoulders above the Bush energy policy ... there are also some troubling aspects," said Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club's global warming and energy program.

Lieberman's proposal to improve fuel economy would establish what amounts to a trading system for auto companies. The industry would be required to increase the average fuel efficiency of its vehicles enough for the nation to save 2 million barrels of oil a day by 2015. In practice, environmentalists and auto officials both say that would require the manufacturers to increase their average fuel economy to as much as 40 miles per gallon, up from about 24 today.

But hoping to make the plan more efficient and temper opposition from the auto companies and the United Auto Workers union, Lieberman said not all companies should be required to meet that standard.

Instead, he said, those firms that choose to produce less fuel-efficient cars should be able to buy "credits" from companies whose vehicle lines exceed the limit. In effect, companies that choose to focus on larger, less fuel-efficient vehicles, like SUVs, would have to buy the right to do so from those manufacturing smaller, more efficient vehicles.

In legislation co-sponsored with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lieberman is promoting a similar trading system to reduce emissions of the gases associated with global warming. McCain said Wednesday that he planned to introduce the bill as an amendment to the energy bill the Senate is now considering.

After his speech, Lieberman said he believed his market-based approach for improving fuel economy would have a "better chance of getting adopted" than earlier efforts to mandate more efficient cars.

Amid opposition from the Bush administration, the auto companies and the auto workers union, the Senate last year soundly rejected an amendment from Kerry and McCain to raise the fuel economy standard to 35 mpg by 2015. That initiative did not include the trading feature Lieberman proposed Wednesday.

Initial reactions suggest the auto industry may be just as cool to his idea. Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said that even with the trading feature, Lieberman was seeking an unrealistic increase in the overall fuel economy level.

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