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RONALD BROWNSTEIN

Climate commitment

Bush or the Dems could cut car emissions and boost mpg -- if they really want to.

May 23, 2007|RONALD BROWNSTEIN

THERE'S SO MUCH talk about climate change in Washington these days that the hot air itself may be contributing to global warming. But two approaching decisions will test whether President Bush and the Democrat-led Congress can match their words with deeds. And on both fronts, the early evidence is emphatically mixed.

Each question revolves around pollution from cars and trucks, which account for about one-third of U.S. emissions of the gases, like carbon dioxide, linked to global warming. The most effective way to reduce those emissions is to improve automotive fuel efficiency. Squeezing more miles from a gallon of gasoline also would reduce America's reliance on foreign oil -- which now provides about 60% of the U.S. supply, up from about 40% in 1990.

Incredibly, 1990 was the last time Washington required automakers to improve fuel efficiency for passenger cars. During the 1970s energy crisis, Congress mandated that automakers reach an average of 27.5 miles per gallon for their passenger cars by 1985. Unrelenting protests from the auto companies and the United Auto Workers led the Transportation Department to lower the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (or CAFE) standard in the late 1980s, before restoring the 27.5-mpg level in 1990. It hasn't budged since.

And because Americans buy so many sport utility vehicles and light trucks, which are allowed to meet lower standards, the average performance for all vehicles on the road is now just 25.4 mpg. That's less than in 1988. With manufacturers prizing performance above mileage, even passenger cars have improved only from 29 mpg in 1988 to 30 now. Don't spend the savings all in one place.

Over the last two decades, Democrats (starting with President Clinton) let this issue idle as much as the GOP did. But converging concerns about foreign oil, soaring gas prices and global warming are finally changing the equation. Even President Bush, who opposes economy-wide regulation of greenhouse gases, has called for improving fuel economy, most recently in a statement on global warming last week. Both the House and Senate could vote this year on legislation raising CAFE standards.

Those bills may be the most telling measure of Congress' commitment to serious action on climate change. The Senate Commerce Committee recently approved legislation setting a 35-mpg standard for all vehicles on the road by 2020, with 4% annual increases thereafter -- reasonable goals similar to those Bush has embraced. The committee also followed a worthwhile Bush suggestion by restructuring the system to require separate improvements from both small and large vehicles. That removes the argument that tougher overall standards benefit Japanese manufacturers (because they primarily sell cars) over American companies more dependent on trucks.

But sponsors of the bill, including California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, reluctantly accepted a damaging loophole: In a provision known as the "off-ramp," they allowed the government to suspend the increases if it decides that the overall costs exceed the benefits. That tracks the weakest element of Bush's proposal. He has opposed legislation mandating specific targets and timetables for fuel economy, arguing that the president should retain flexibility to set future standards.

Flexibility sounds reasonable. But given the tireless opposition from the auto interests, providing future presidents that much discretion virtually assures that the most ambitious standards will never be met. As a tactic to avoid or defeat a filibuster from Senate opponents and move the bill forward, adding the "off-ramp" probably made sense. But if it survives in final legislation -- if any -- it's an indication Congress won't match its rhetoric on global warming with action.

While Congress deliberates, Bush is facing a more immediate test of words and actions on climate change. After the Supreme Court ruled in April that the Environmental Protection Agency must regulate automotive greenhouse gas emissions (unless it could identify a compelling reason not to), Bush last week ordered the agency to begin drafting a rule. But he raised doubts about his sincerity and urgency by declaring that the process would last until he leaves office.

Still, there's a shortcut available. California has already passed legislation requiring cars to cut greenhouse gas emissions by nearly one-third, and 13 states have said they will follow -- if the EPA, which must approve, provides California permission. The principal way auto manufacturers would meet that requirement is to improve fuel economy. And because the states involved account for about 40% of the market, the companies would probably have no choice but to engineer all their vehicles to the higher standard.

Yet until Tuesday, when hearings began on the rule, the EPA had shelved California's request for 18 months. If Bush genuinely wants to break Washington's gridlock on global warming and improve mileage, pushing the EPA to quickly give a green light to California offers his best chance to prove it.

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ronald.brownstein@latimes.com

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