- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 13, 2002

Senate Democratic and Republican leaders reached a compromise yesterday that would eliminate specific miles-per-gallon standards automakers must meet and replace them with a flexible rule-making procedure.
The fuel-efficiency standards are included in an energy bill intended to reduce U.S. dependency on foreign oil.
The latest proposal, sponsored by senators from auto-manufacturing states, would let the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration decide the fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles.
A final Senate vote on the proposed amendment could come as soon as today.
The Bush administration has warned that it would oppose stringent fuel-efficiency standards that could result in smaller cars and more traffic deaths.
The compromise amendment yesterday was proposed by Sen. Christopher S. Bond, Missouri Republican, and Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat.
It is contending for Senate approval with a rival bipartisan proposal announced last week that would increase fuel-efficiency standards by 50 percent by 2015.
Instead, the Bond-Levin proposal would require NHTSA to upgrade standards based on scientific evidence that higher standards were attainable without damaging the automobile industry or diminishing safety.
"I also believe in job conservation," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat, who prefers the Bond-Levin amendment.
She said fixed Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards could force automakers to manufacture only lightweight vehicles with few features, thereby making consumers prefer foreign-made vehicles. As a result, the jobs for U.S. workers who make the heavier vehicles would disappear. She also questioned whether the standards were technically realistic.
"Whatever we do must be realizable and achievable," she said.
Mr. Bond said the CAFE standards lacked scientific evidence that they could be achieved without damaging an industry that supports 6.6 million jobs and compromising safety.
"The CAFE provision is a job killer," he said. "This is unfortunately a political number pulled out of thin air."
He also said lighter-weight vehicles could result in thousands more highway deaths, similar to what happened after automakers made smaller cars to meet 1970s-era fuel-efficiency standards.
The rival proposal announced last week was offered by Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, and Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican. It would require automakers to produce cars with a fleet average that rises from 24 to 36 miles per gallon by 2015. Automakers who meet the standards would earn credits that they could then sell to other automakers who are having difficulty meeting fuel-efficiency standards.
"It's more of a market-based system," said David Wade, spokesman for Mr. Kerry.
Mr. Kerry and Mr. McCain say their proposal would reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil by one million barrels per day. Gasoline sales make up 44 percent of the average 19.8 million barrels of petroleum used daily in the United States.
Automakers oppose the fuel standards and predict a sharp increase in the cost of automobiles to accommodate new fuel-efficiency technologies. They also say the money they spend to meet tough new fuel-efficiency standards would be diverted from their development of new technologies, such as hybrid-electric vehicles or fuel cells that run on hydrogen.
General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. both have large plants in the home states of Mr. Bond and Mr. Levin.
Their proposal also would create tax incentives for fuel efficiency. Consumers purchasing electric vehicles could get a tax credit of up to $6,000. An $11,000 tax credit would be available for fuel-cell vehicles and a $5,000 credit for hybrid electric vehicles that run on gasoline and electricity.
Service stations could deduct up to $100,000 in taxes for installing alternative-fuel refueling equipment, such as pumps and storage tanks. The federal government would be required to purchase more hybrid and alternative-fuel vehicles.
Environmental groups harshly criticized the proposal.
The Alliance to Save Energy said the Bond-Levin proposal would delay overdue increases in fuel-efficiency standards. The League of Conservation Voters called the proposal a "weak alternative that would do little to save oil and nothing to improve auto safety."
The CAFE standards are only one part of a bill that includes the controversial issue of whether to open a small portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. Senate leaders said debate and a possible vote on the entire energy bill could come later this week.


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