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40 mpg? Congress just might go for it

As climate concern rises, lawmakers who have opposed stricter standards find they're willing to change.

February 12, 2007|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — For decades, Sen. Ted Stevens has battled environmentalists, but the Alaska Republican now finds himself in an unusual spot: pushing tougher fuel-economy standards for cars.

Amid heightened concerns over global warming and U.S. dependence on foreign oil, Stevens is one of a number of lawmakers shifting gears in the debate over whether Congress should mandate stricter miles-per-gallon rules.

"I'm trying to protect my state," said Stevens, who recently called climate change "more apparent in Alaska than anywhere else."

The 83-year-old senator's change of heart illustrates how the landscape has shifted in Congress, and could signal a turning point in the long campaign by environmentalists -- successfully fended off by Detroit -- to toughen fuel-economy standards.

"There is clear bipartisan agreement, for the first time in 30 years, that Congress is going to have to act to increase fuel economy standards," said Philip E. Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust.

Cars and light trucks -- including SUVs, pickups and vans -- account for about one-fifth of U.S. carbon dioxide production. The better the fuel economy, the lower the emissions of carbon dioxide, blamed for contributing to global warming.

For years, Congress has debated whether to mandate higher standards as the fleet-average fuel economy has declined from its peak in the mid-1980s. Under a 1975 law passed after the Arab oil embargo, each automaker's car fleet must average 27.5 miles per gallon and its light trucks 22.2 miles per gallon. The car standard has been untouched for 18 years; the truck standard will increase to 24 miles per gallon by 2011.

Stevens is sponsoring a bill to raise the standards for cars to 40 miles per gallon within a decade. Just two years ago, he voted against a similar measure. Stevens said he is convinced Detroit can build more fuel-efficient cars.

"Unless we put some urgency behind it and tell them we mean business," he said in a recent interview, "nothing's going to happen."

Legislation to require an increase faces strong opposition from the U.S. auto industry and its congressional allies, who contend it would lead to lighter, less safe vehicles; threaten auto industry jobs; and limit consumer choice.

Citing Detroit's economic woes, Rep. Joe L. Barton of Texas, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said: "The last time I looked at the business pages, Ford and GM were ... hemorrhaging jobs, they're losing market share. Yeah, let's pile on and pass a 40-mile-per-gallon mandate."

President Bush, although he called for an increase in fuel-efficiency standards in his State of the Union address, opposes any effort by Congress to mandate stricter rules.

Still, fuel-economy standards are likely to emerge as an issue in the presidential campaign, which could spark action in Congress.

Announced and prospective candidates Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) and former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) have supported stricter miles-per-gallon rules. That has prompted a Detroit ally, Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-Mich.), to remind them that the Big Three automakers have plants in 17 states "that account for 225 electoral votes."

The last time the Senate voted on the issue, during consideration of the 2005 energy bill, a proposal to increase the standard to 40 miles per gallon by 2016 drew just 28 votes. In the House, a more modest proposal to raise the standard was rejected 254-177.

But some of those who voted against tougher standards in the past now support an increase, and Detroit's allies are worried. "The threat is at its highest level that it's ever been," said Knollenberg.

Those hoping Congress will act are encouraged.

"We now have Congress members on both sides of the aisle, plus the president, calling for a serious increase in fuel-economy standards," said David Friedman, research director for the clean vehicles program for the Union of Concerned Scientists. "I really do think this is the best chance we've had in quite a long time to actually get something serious passed."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) has made passage of energy and global-warming legislation a priority and has moved to establish a special committee to recommend legislation, bypassing House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), an auto industry ally who has fought tougher fuel-economy standards. The special committee is expected to be headed by Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), the House's No. 1 champion of stricter miles-per-gallon rules.

Markey, who plans to introduce his fuel-economy bill this week, said, "I've had both Democrats and Republicans coming up to me on the floor saying they agree with me."

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