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Battle Lines Drawn On Fuel Economy
Congress Considers Stiffer Standards

By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 25, 2007

President Bush and Congress appear to be on a collision course on how best to increase motor-vehicle fuel efficiency.

Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said yesterday that Bush would oppose attempts by Congress to raise fuel-efficiency standards if its approach differs from the administration's. On Tuesday, Bush called for changing standards to reach a goal of saving 8.5 billion gallons of gasoline in 2017. Scientists say Bush's plan would require automakers to lift overall fuel efficiency to 34 miles per gallon, from 24 mpg today.

Lawmakers from both parties are beginning to push for stronger action, including Sens. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.). Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has introduced legislation to increase the passenger-car standard to 40 mpg. The government's average fuel-economy standard for passenger cars has been 27.5 mpg since the 1980s.

Peters said Bush wants to change how the government regulates fuel economy for passenger cars. Currently, Congress sets standards for cars while the administration sets them for trucks and sport-utility vehicles. Peters said Bush wants the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to have power over passenger-car fuel standards.

NHTSA updated the fuel-efficiency standard for trucks last year, setting in motion an increase to 24 mpg in 2011 from 22.2 mpg this year. Environmentalists have complained that the increase was too small.

At the Washington Auto Show yesterday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) expressed hope that Congress and the administration would work out their differences. Asked whether there could be bipartisan legislation on fuel economy, she said "absolutely."

Auto executives are pressing the federal government for financial support for costly fuel-saving technologies.

In the Bush plan, Peters said, regulators would require that automakers improve fuel economy by 4 percent a year starting in 2010 for passenger cars and 4 percent a year for trucks and SUVs beginning in 2012. The plan would also give automakers the ability to buy and sell fuel-efficiency credits among themselves, though the details have not been worked out.

Sharp changes in fuel standards have encountered stiff opposition from the auto industry, which fears that they would cut into profits. The companies have outlined approaches similar to the Bush plan, which Peters called "the most friendly to Detroit."

U.S. automakers are trying to pull out of a deep slump after consumers fled to more-fuel-efficient vehicles when gasoline prices rose significantly. Some observers think the industry would benefit from making cars with better mileage -- even if that is forced upon it and increases costs.

"Raising fuel-economy standards will save auto jobs in the U.S.," said David Freidman, research director for the clean vehicles program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "One of the biggest threats to auto-industry jobs besides poor management decisions is high gas prices."

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