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Stronger CAFE

Competing bills to increase auto fuel standards are gaining traction, although some are better than others.

February 17, 2007

REPUBLICAN SEN. Ted Stevens' resistance to fighting climate change is melting faster than his home state's glaciers. The senior senator from Alaska proposed a bill last month aimed at raising automotive fuel economy standards, in some ways higher than a competing bill backed by such traditional environmentalists as Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.)

Stevens' about-face on fuel economy (he voted against a bill two years ago similar to the one he just introduced) is welcome, even if many of his proposal's details aren't. Across-the-aisle initiatives like his are part of the reason this Congress stands a good chance of making the most meaningful improvements to the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards since they were created during the last fuel crisis in the 1970s.

There are several competing fuel economy packages percolating in Congress. Stevens' bill is the least helpful; it calls for a 40 miles per gallon minimum for all passenger cars by 2017 -- higher even than the plan by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) -- but it doesn't apply to pickups and SUVs, which are most in need of improvement. It also overreaches by creating a sweeping national trading system for greenhouse gas emissions.

Feinstein's bill, backed by Boxer, calls for automakers' entire fleets to average 35 mpg by 2019 (the current standard is 27.5 mpg for cars, 22.2 for pickups and SUVs, based on the averages of each vehicle sold). Feinstein's bill would do away with the separate light truck standard, which no longer makes sense. Pickups and SUVs were given a pass in the 1970s because at the time they were mostly commercial vehicles and relatively scarce; now that SUVs are commonplace passenger vehicles, there's no reason to give them special breaks.

Improving fuel economy would both reduce the carbon emissions that are warming the globe and lessen U.S. reliance on foreign oil. But would it prove financially unfeasible for Detroit? That's hard to predict, though a University of Michigan study last fall argued that improving fuel economy would actually boost automakers' financial health.

Such conclusions are highly speculative, but it doesn't take a PhD to see that Japanese automakers are growing U.S. market share while their American competitors shrink, at least partly because Japanese cars get better mileage. Japanese automakers would suffer less than Detroit because their lineups already tend not to be as heavily focused on gas guzzlers.

Of the bills on the table, Feinstein's looks to be the most sensible. But any of them would be better than the toothless mandate proposed last month by President Bush in his State of the Union address. Congress is giving Bush's CAFE proposals the attention they deserve: none at all.

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