Senators Reach Agreement on Fuel Economy

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, March 8, 2002 (ENS) - A bipartisan group of Senators led by Democrat John Kerry of Massachusetts and Republican John McCain of Arizona, agreed Wednesday on a plan to increase the fuel efficiency of cars and light trucks sold in the United States. The measure, an amendment to the Senate energy bill, is likely to face stiff opposition when reviewed by the full Senate next week.


At 40 miles per gallon in highway driving, Saturn's SL sedan is one of the most fuel efficient cars on the market (Photo courtesy Saturn)
The agreement would raise corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards to 36 miles per gallon (mpg) for both passenger cars and light trucks. Under the measure, each automaker would have to achieve this fuel efficiency, averaged across the company's entire fleet, by 2015.

Raising CAFE standards from their current level of 27.mpg for cars, and 20.7 mpg for light trucks, could save up to one million barrels of oil per day- as much as the nation now imports from Iraq and Kuwait combined - and cut 240 million tons of carbon dioxide pollution per year.

"The Sierra Club applauds this effort to ensure that the Senate energy bill saves oil, saves consumers money at the pump, and cuts pollution," said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. "With bipartisan support, and the need to improve energy security, there is no responsible reason for senators to oppose this bill."


Senator John McCain has led efforts to increase vehicle fuel efficiency. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
America's cars and light trucks now consume eight million barrels of oil every day. The average fuel economy of new vehicles sold hit 20.4 mpg last year, the lowest level since 1980.

The Bush administration's national energy policy strongly emphasizes developing new domestic oil reserves, particularly on public lands, to help reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil. Conservation groups counter that with just three percent of the world's proven oil reserves, the U.S. can not drill its way to oil independence.

"It is heartening to have this agreement," said Pope. "Rather than drilling in the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, we hope the Senate will vote to make this reasonable step to reduce our dependence on oil."

Increasing CAFE standards could also help cut vehicle pollution emissions. Cars and light trucks emit 20 percent of the nation's human produced carbon dioxide, the chief heat trapping gas blamed for global warming.


Senator John Kerry had proposed boosting CAFE standards by 2013, but agreed to a 2015 deadline in a compromise with Senator John McCain. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
Senator Kerry had first proposed boosting CAFE standards for new vehicles by 50 percent by the 2013 model year. The compromise with Senator McCain gives the auto industry two additional years to meet that standard, and introduces a trading system for greenhouse gas credits - a provision critics say could undermine the oil and pollution savings of the plan.

"We are troubled by a trading provision in the bill that would allow the industry to meet 10 percent of the overall fuel economy standard through trading with other industries," said Kate Abend, global warming associate at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG).

"This loophole would cut into oil savings and reduction of global warming pollution by allowing the auto industry to trade greenhouse gas credits with non-petroleum based industries, essentially dragging the 36 mpg standard down to 32.4 mpg," Abend explained. "The trading scheme also sets a dangerous precedent by allowing trading between uncapped sectors. This would leave no way to track actual cuts in carbon emissions."

Still, the compromise proposal is seen as a far better bet than an amendment offered Thursday by Senators Carl Levin, a Democrat representing the nation's auto industry headquarters in Michigan, and Christopher Bond, a Missouri Republican. Their competing amendment would eliminate existing fuel efficiency language from the Senate energy bill - language which falls far short of the Kerry-McCain measure - and transfer responsibility for raising fuel economy standards to the Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).


Senator Christopher "Kit" Bond has cosponsored an amendment that could make it harder to increase CAFE standards. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
"NHTSA's poor track record and ties to the auto industry preclude any expectation of significant action on fuel economy," warned U.S. PIRG's Abend. "In the last decade, NHTSA increased fuel economy standards for light trucks by a meager 0.5 mpg and never acted to increase the standards for cars."

In contrast, the American International Automobile Dealers Association (AIADA) sent letters to every U.S. Senator on Thursday expressing support for the Bond-Levin amendment.

"The investments of our members and the jobs in their businesses are in jeopardy if unreasonable and unworkable CAFE standards are adopted," the letter states, arguing that increasing vehicle fuel efficiency will be prohibitively expensive for the industry. The industry also warns that meeting the CAFE standards spelled out by the Kerry-McCain amendment would require automakers to sell smaller, lighter vehicles that provide less protection to drivers and passengers in crashes.

"AIADA believes the Bond-Levin amendment is the best vehicle to achieve increased fuel economy without jeopardizing consumer choice and safety," the industry group states.


Requiring automakers to increase the fuel efficiency of vehicles like this Ford Excursion, which averages 12 miles to the gallon, would reduce U.S. oil consumption (Photo courtesy Ford Motor Company)
The White House has issued a statement saying proposals to increase CAFE standards "would contribute to many thousands of additional passenger fatalities and injuries" by requiring smaller and lighter cars.

Supporters of increased CAFE standards counter that the technology to safely increase fuel efficiency already exists. In July 2001, the National Research Council released a report stating that automakers could meet a 37 mpg fuel economy standard phased in over 10 to 15 years without compromising safety or industry profits.

More efficient engines, continuously variable transmissions, and better aerodynamics could all be used to boost the fuel economy of motor vehicles, the report noted.

"We have the technology to achieve better mileage for passenger vehicles without sacrificing safety or comfort," said Alliance to Save Energy president David Nemtzow. "A fuel efficient SUV [sport utility vehicle] can be just as comfortable and safe as a gas guzzler."

"As with any compromise proposal, this is not one hundred percent of what we were seeking," added the Sierra Club's Pope, "but it represents a real and serious step forward."