- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 14, 2002

The Senate gave automakers a reprieve yesterday by rejecting a plan requiring that they produce cars, trucks and sport utility vehicles that run 50 percent farther on a gallon of gas.
The industry and its unions lobbied hard against requiring a 36 mpg average by 2015. Supporters of the higher standard said it would save millions of barrels of oil and could be reached through current and emerging technologies.
Instead, the Senate by a 62-38 vote told the Transportation Department to develop new fuel economy rules over the next two years but did not require specific mileage increases.
Separately, senators voted 56-44 to exempt pickup trucks from future mileage increases.
Sen. John Kerry, sponsor of the 36 mpg standard, said the proposal that replaced his in a broad energy bill was "an artful dodge, a great escape" from doing anything about fuel economy. "We are going backward," said the Massachusetts Democrat.
Federal fuel economy rules have not changed in 15 years, noted Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, who said the vote was "a missed opportunity … to pass meaningful" standards.
The House has turned down significant increases in auto fuel economy.
Automakers now are required to meet a fleet average of 27.5 mpg for sedans and 20.7 mpg for SUVs, minivans and pickups. Mr. Kerry's proposal would have combined the two categories.
The average for all vehicles was 24 mpg in 2000, about what it was 22 years ago.
Conservationists say that motor vehicles account for 40 percent of the oil used across the country, and that higher mileage levels would help reduce U.S. reliance on oil imports as well as address environmental problems such as climate change.
The Senate debate, however, focused on the potential fallout from the proposed mileage increase: job losses in the auto industry and the production of smaller cars, which could lead to more traffic fatalities while depriving Americans of lower-mileage but roomier minivans and SUVs.
Minority Leader Trent Lott displayed a picture of a two-seater, bubblelike subcompact a Daimler-Chrysler that gets 70 mpg and is sold only in Europe. "I don't want every American to have to drive this car," said the Mississippi Republican.
Mr. Kerry accused those who opposed his proposal of "extraordinary, ridiculous scare tactics" prompted by the auto industry.
"No American will be forced to drive a different vehicle. The technology is available today to meet the higher standard," Mr. Kerry said.
He cited a National Academy of Sciences study last year that concluded significant fuel efficiency improvements were feasible without making automobiles smaller and lighter.
But Sen. Carl Levin, one of the co-sponsors of the alternative that passed, rejected claims that his approach would not improve fuel economy.
It would require federal regulators to issue new mileage rules within two years, but "in a way that does not harm the domestic manufacturing industry," said Mr. Levin, Michigan Democrat.
Sen. Christopher S. Bond, also a co-sponsor, said, "It's going to be several years" before regulators could develop new computer models to make changes in the current standard if the proposal became law.
Any changes "in the short term are going to have to be very modest," said Mr. Bond, Missouri Republican.

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