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Congress thought the unthinkable on vehicle mileage

The 35 mpg standard, part of a larger energy bill in the works, grew from $3 gasoline and global warming issues.

December 02, 2007|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Just a few years ago, the prospects of Congress boosting fuel-economy rules for vehicles could have been summed up by one word: unimaginable.

But the unimaginable has become political necessity in an era of $3-plus-per-gallon gasoline, with Democratic leaders under pressure to deliver on their promise to pass an energy bill aimed at reducing global warming and U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

A measure providing for a 40% increase in fuel efficiency for new cars and light trucks by 2020, for a fleetwide average of 35 miles per gallon, appears certain to win the support of majorities in the House and Senate, especially with Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), perhaps Detroit's staunchest ally on Capitol Hill, supporting it.

"A 35-mpg standard is something that just a year and a half ago most people in Washington thought would never see the light of day," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who has pushed for higher standards for years.

But though an agreement was reached on tougher miles-per-gallon rules, congressional negotiators labored over the weekend to try to complete work on other aspects of the energy bill.

The bill is expected to include a requirement, popular among farm-state lawmakers, that greater amounts of homegrown fuel such as ethanol be added to the nation's gasoline supply. It also is likely to include a measure, which earlier ran into trouble in the Senate, requiring utilities to generate more electricity from cleaner sources such as the sun and wind.

Still, Democratic leaders were optimistic that they could get a bill to the president's desk before the end of the year.

The tougher fuel-economy standards are the centerpiece of the bill, expected to come before the House for a vote this week.

Whether President Bush will sign the bill is uncertain. Many Republicans have complained that the bill does not do enough to increase domestic production of oil.

Sierra Club lobbyist Melinda Pierce said that it would be difficult for Bush not to sign a bill that includes tougher fuel-economy standards after he set, in his State of the Union address, a goal of reducing the nation's gasoline consumption by 20% over 10 years.

"I can't imagine that President Bush can veto a bill that Congress has passed, the automobile makers have signed off on, and the American public is clamoring for," she said Saturday.

A White House spokeswoman said the administration had yet to see details of the agreement. Rep. Joe L. Barton of Texas, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a statement Saturday that if the bill clears Congress, he will recommend that Bush veto it.

Under a 1975 law passed after the Arab oil embargo, each automaker's fleet of cars must average 27.5 mpg and its light trucks, including SUVs, pickups and minivans, 22.2 mpg.

For years, a coalition of Republicans wary of regulation and Democrats from vehicle-producing states -- with fierce lobbying by U.S. auto companies and auto unions -- has opposed tougher standards, contending that they would lead to lighter, less safe vehicles, threaten auto industry jobs and limit consumer choice. Just two years ago, during consideration of the last big energy bill, a proposal to increase the standard to 40 mpg by 2016 drew just 28 votes in the 100-member Senate.

A lot has changed since then. "Between $3-a-gallon gasoline and a growing understanding of global-warming pollution, Americans are demanding that we do something," said David Friedman, research director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' clean-vehicles program. "They're also demanding we improve our national security. Our oil addiction is about our national security."

Phyllis Cuttino, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts Campaign for Fuel Efficiency, added in a statement Saturday: "Senators and representatives will return to Washington next week after spending two weeks at home with very angry constituents who are facing record-high gas prices. They are hearing a simple message: Do something."

Proponents of tougher standards have increasingly framed the debate as a national-security issue. Imports account for about 60% of America's oil consumption, up from 36% during the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo. According to an analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the tougher standards, once fully implemented, will save about 1.1 million barrels of oil a day in 2020. The U.S. consumes about 20 million barrels of oil a day.

And Democrats who took control of Congress this year -- especially the new House speaker, Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) -- have made climate change a priority, as California and other states have begun moving to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles. Cars and light trucks account for about a fifth of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.

On Saturday, industry allies noted that Detroit had won some concessions, including providing the industry with some flexibility to meet the standards. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an industry trade group, expressed support for the measure Saturday.

Friedman said automakers would continue to receive flex-fuel vehicle credits for vehicles that "can, but rarely do" run on alternative fuels, notably ethanol blends.

But he said "the loophole is phased out and ultimately eliminated in 2020. While the agreement preserves separate passenger and nonpassenger vehicle standards, the locked-in 35-mpg requirement should guard against automaker attempts to game the system."

Dingell said in a conference call Saturday: "We probably have a pretty good compromise. Because not everybody is satisfied with everything."

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