By Sholnn Freeman and Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
For more than 20 years, the American automotive industry has deflected attempts to force improvements in vehicle mileage. Now Detroit is getting battered on the issue from almost every side, and even industry-friendly lawmakers say change is looming.
Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), long protective of the automakers, has told lobbyists for the industry to get ready for some bad news. In private meetings this year, Dingell, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said that a proposal that alters fuel economy standards is likely this year -- and that Detroit will not like everything in it.
"He gave us a dose of political reality," an auto lobbyist said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), who represents a district heavily dependent on the auto industry, said it may be time for the industry to start looking for a compromise.
"We have to look at something different," Rogers said last week. "Something is going to be done on fuel efficiency for vehicles -- that much I believe."
The political movement toward a change in corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, standards has steadily picked up momentum as high gas prices and anxiety over global warming have gripped the public. Old allies of the auto industry, including oil and chemical companies, have deserted carmakers by calling for better fuel efficiency.
Still, the legislation faces hurdles. A markup hearing in the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has been postponed to May 8 as members turn their attention to competing legislation on identity theft. Proponents of the fuel economy legislation will also have to address concerns raised by new Democratic members who have automotive plants in their states.
The committee is working under a tight deadline from Senate leaders who want a fuel economy bill as a component of a larger energy package by May 14.
Any bill could encounter a floor fight. In interviews yesterday, Michigan Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Carl M. Levin, both Democrats, said they favored alternatives, including a "cap-and-trade" system for emissions of carbon dioxide, an idea that's being advanced in the House by Dingell and Republican lawmakers.
"There is going to be a clash, no doubt about it," Rogers said.
A few oil companies have told lawmakers that fuel economy standards should be toughened as a way to reduce demand for oil products. ConocoPhillips has been among the most outspoken in its demand for better vehicle mileage.
Among chemical manufacturers, Dow Chemical has rankled the auto firms the most, industry lobbyists say. Though it is based in Michigan along with the automakers and is a major supplier to them, Dow has called on the industry to increase vehicle fuel economy by 4 percent.
Within the next few weeks, a coalition led by the Pew Charitable Trusts will announce a nationwide campaign to press Congress to pass fuel economy legislation. The effort, in the final planning stages, will include at least a dozen different interest groups, including energy and national security groups and religious organizations.
"The war in Iraq and high prices at the pump are increasingly sensitizing the American public, and we think this is the right time to do this," said Josh Reichert, director of Pew's environment group. "There is a confluence of factors out there that make this the best opportunity that we've had in decades."
The environmentalists are getting a boost from an unlikely quarter: a bipartisan lobbying coalition of big names in the military and corporate suites. Securing America's Future Energy has been telling lawmakers that Americans' security is at risk as long as the country remains dependent on foreign oil, especially Middle Eastern oil. One of its solutions is to bolster fuel economy standards.
The lobby group includes heavyweights such as Frederick W. Smith, chief executive of FedEx, and retired Gen. P.X. Kelley, a former Marine Corps commandant.
The automakers prefer to leave any adjustment in mileage standards in the hands of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rather than Congress. The industry says NHTSA would be ruled by science rather than politics. Utilities, coal producers and large business groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have also argued against Congress mandating a specific change in CAFE standards.
But with the prospect that Congress, especially the Senate, could become even more heavily Democratic after the 2008 election, the auto companies are showing signs that they might accept tighter requirements to avoid more onerous limitations from the next Congress.
Alan R. Mulally, the new chief executive of Ford, said he believes the Earth is warming due to greenhouse-gas emissions and has promised that Ford would step up its commitment to environmental leadership. He said public opinion increasingly shows that "green is good business."
But even Mulally admitted yesterday the learning curve on CAFE, one of Washington's most intractable political issues, remains as daunting as ever.
"I never learned so much so fast," Mulally said.