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Group of moderate Republicans backs tough fuel efficiency targets

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A group of more than a dozen moderate Republicans, including four former Environmental Protection Agency administrators, urged President Obama in a letter Wednesday to set tough new standards to curb carbon emissions from cars and light trucks.

The letter comes as the administration is debating what sort of greenhouse gas emission limits it should impose on vehicles that will be sold in the United States for the model years 2017 to 2025. Officials from two federal agencies, the EPA and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), are meeting privately with representatives from the California Air Resources Board and the White House to establish standards requiring a 3 percent to 6 percent annual improvement in fuel efficiency during that period.

Automakers argue that requiring a 6 percent annual rise in fuel efficiency — a fleet-wide highway average of roughly 62 miles per gallon by 2025 — is unrealistic given Americans’ penchant for bigger and more powerful vehicles.

The group of former elected and appointed GOP officials, however, argued that stricter carbon limits have economic and national security benefits.

The move would “help relieve the United States from its dangerous dependence on oil,” wrote the group, which included former EPA administrators Russell Train, William Ruckelhaus, William K. Reilly and Christine Todd Whitman. “The volatility of oil prices along with today’s soaring prices at the pump are a threat to our economy and national security.”

Gloria Berquist, spokeswoman of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, questioned why the politicians would weigh in now that they no longer occupy public office.

“It’s not surprising that a group of policymakers who supported raising fuel economy targets while they were in office would continue to do so after leaving office,” Berquist said. “Today’s policymakers have a process under way to develop data-driven standards that avoid higher car prices, job losses and government deciding what Americans drive. We need to let that process work.”

Former representative Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), who chaired the House Science Committee and led the effort to draft the letter, said he felt compelled to weigh in on the debate over carbon standards because “this is critically important.” Stricter requirements, he said, would make the country more competitive on the global market.

“Everybody who’s got an ounce of common sense has to be concerned about the economy,” Boehlert said. “But you can’t just be concerned about it. You have to propose something.”

The other Republicans who signed the letter were former Vermont governor Jim Douglas and former representatives Michael Castle (Del.), Vernon Ehlers (Mich.), Wayne Gilchrest (Md.), Benjamin Gilman (N.Y.), Amo Houghton (N.Y.), Connie Morella (Md.), Jim Ramstad (Minn.), Christopher Shays (Conn.) and Peter Smith (Vt.).

The back-and-forth on the issue came as leaders from the advanced auto technology industry, including the head of battery maker A123 Systems and the vice president for business development of Tesla Motors, met with Obama officials Wednesday to discuss the feasibility of meeting ambitious fuel efficiency targets.

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