Senate Rejects Mandatory Fuel Efficiency Proposal

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, March 15, 2002 (ENS) - The U.S. Senate voted Wednesday to reject a plan to force automakers to increase the fuel efficiency of their passenger vehicles. Republican Senate leaders used the support of Democrats from auto industry states to defeat a proposed amendment to the Senate energy bill that would have required a 36 mile per gallon (mpg) average fuel efficiency for cars and light trucks by 2015.


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)
By a 62-38 vote, the Senate approved a different amendment calling on the Department of Transportation to research and develop new fuel economy regulations over the next two years. The measure, written by Senators Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, and Kit Bond, a Missouri Republican, does not specify what the new rules should entail.

In another defeat for supporters of higher fuel efficiency requirements, the Senate voted 56-44 to exempt pickup trucks from future increases in corporate average fuel efficiency (CAFE) standards.

Just six Republican Senators voted against the Bond-Levin amendment, including Arizona's John McCain, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, and Gordon Smith of Oregon.

"The Senate is handing our nation's energy security over to the auto industry," said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. "It's unfortunate the Senate bowed to the pressure of the auto industry that waged a campaign of fear and falsehoods. This vote means that after months of bipartisan calls to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, the Senate is instead voting to do virtually nothing."

The Sierra Club is one of a host of environmental and public interest groups that lobbied in support of an amendment crafted by Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, to create a combined CAFE standard for cars and light trucks of 36 mpg. The current standards, which have not been changed in 15 years, are 27.5 mpg for cars and 20.7 mpg for pickup trucks, minivans and sport utility vehicles.


Senator John Kerry had helped to craft a rejected proposal to mandate CAFE standards of 36 mpg by 2015. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
"We are going backward," Kerry said, characterizing the Bond-Levin amendment as "an artful dodge," allowing automakers to avoid taking any action to increase vehicle fuel efficiency.

Critics of the Kerry-McCain proposal said it would have forced automakers to rely on smaller, lighter cars, which provide less protection in car accidents. Arguments presented in the Senate today focused on consumer choice, with opponents of increased CAFE standards citing the "rights" of Americans to drive large, inefficient vehicles.

Displaying a photo of a tiny vehicle now available only in Europe, Republican Trent Lott said, "I don't want every American to have to drive this car."

"No American will be forced to drive a different vehicle," Kerry countered. "The technology is available today to meet the higher standard."

A report issued last year by the National Academy of Sciences found that automakers could increase fuel efficiency using existing technology, without compromising vehicle safety or consumer choice.


Senator Carl Levin drafted an amendment that won support from automakers in his home state of Michigan. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
Automakers applauded the Senate vote to reject mandatory higher CAFE standards.

"Passage today of the Bond-Levin amendment is a victory for American consumers and their freedom of vehicle choice in the marketplace," said Walter Huizenga, president of the American International Automobile Dealers Association (AIADA). "Efforts to dramatically increase Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards threatened to compromise vehicle safety and would have eliminated some of the most popular vehicles on the road today."

AIADA opposed the Kerry-McCain amendment, calling it "an unreasonable proposal that threatened our member's jobs and their business investments."

Robert Liberatore, senior vice president at DaimlerChrysler, called the Bond-Levin amendment a "reasonable and achievable process for increasing fuel economy standards," and noted that DaimlerChrysler is currently "investing billions of dollars in advanced technologies such as fuel cells to gain competitive advantage in the worldwide marketplace."

But conservation groups warned that the Senate missed an opportunity to mandate fuel conservation that could save millions of barrels of oil, reduce the need for oil drilling on public lands, and combat air pollution.

"Today's Senate action made OPEC's day," said Martha Marks, president of REP America, the national grassroots organization of Republicans for Environmental Protection.


Senator John McCain vowed to continue efforts to increase vehicle fuel efficiency. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
"Forty percent of oil consumed in America goes to fuel cars and light trucks. Fuel economy has fallen to a 20 year low. We import more than half the oil we use," Marks added. "Unless we take significant steps to improve motor vehicle fuel efficiency, U.S. dependence on foreign oil will soar past 60 percent in the next 10 years. Unfortunately, the Senate majority chose to ignore the geological fact that the U.S. does not have enough domestic oil to drill its way to energy independence."

Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, noted that the Big Three automakers - General Motors, Ford Motor Company and Daimler Chrysler - "have spent millions in the past month on scare tactics to intimidate senators once again into opposing new fuel economy standards.

"Over the past 30 years they have fought seatbelts, air bags, and pollution controls in just the same way," Clapp said. "We're going to make sure the American public understands that these companies put their profits ahead of the nation's energy security, their customers' safety and public health."

"The Senate ignored a chance to make real progress in reducing our oil dependence, saving consumers money, and cutting global warming pollution," added the Sierra Club's Pope. "The American people demand better from our Senators than this irresponsible vote to elevate the auto industry's short term interests over Americans' safety and energy security."