- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The Bush administration, facing a public outcry over record high gasoline prices, yesterday proposed a 6 percent increase in fuel efficiency for sport utility vehicles, minivans and pickup trucks.

The plan is expected to yield savings of 10 billion gallons of gas by 2011 — the equivalent of about a month’s worth of fuel consumed by motorists in the United States. The savings would be achieved at a cost of about $6 billion to consumers and the auto industry.

Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said the fuel savings, which would be concentrated primarily in America’s current vehicle of choice — smaller SUVs — would be a boon to consumers facing gas prices near $3 a gallon in major cities.

“This is a plan that will save gas and result in less pain at the pump for motorists,” he said at a press conference in Atlanta.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which issued the proposed rule and hopes to make it final by April, noted that today’s concerns about energy security and high fuel prices are similar to the worries that prevailed when the government first established fuel efficiency standards during the 1970s oil crisis.

Worries about disruptions in oil supplies in Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Middle East’s three biggest producers, this year have combined with tight supplies and growing fuel use in the United States, China and elsewhere to drive oil and gas prices to unprecedented levels.

“Increasingly, the oil consumed in the U.S. originates in countries with political and economic situations that raise concerns about future oil supplies and prices,” the agency said. It contends the social and environmental benefits from increased conservation outweigh any financial distress to the automakers.

SUVs and light trucks account for more than half the vehicles on American highways. The proposal would require manufacturers to gradually increase the efficiency of all but the largest new SUVs and pickup trucks to 23.5 miles a gallon in 2011 from 20.9 mpg today.

The biggest gas-guzzlers of all, such as Hummers, are exempted. And the current 27.5 mpg standards for passenger cars would not be raised.

Since the standard for SUVs and light trucks already was set to rise to 22.2 mpg in 2007, the plan yields an additional 6 percent in savings on top of the 6 percent already planned, for a total of 12.4 percent in fuel savings by 2011.

Manufacturers could achieve the savings by using the law’s old formula for averaging efficiency over the entire fleet of light trucks, or follow new standards established for six different vehicle categories under a reform plan sought by Detroit’s Big Three.

The reformed standards, which require the biggest fuel savings from smaller SUV models, would prevail by 2011.

The traffic agency’s administrator, Jeffrey Runge, said safety would not be compromised in the drive to conserve fuel.

“This proposal removes the incentive for automakers to downsize vehicles” by making them lighter but also less safe, he said. “The old system saved fuel but resulted in more deaths on highways.”

Not everyone agreed. Sam Kazman, general counsel of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which won a 1992 lawsuit against the agency for concealing deaths attributed to earlier efficiency standards, said the claim that safety is not compromised is “pure nonsense.”

“Safety may be NHTSA’s middle name, but when it comes to fuel economy this agency’s commitment to safety is nothing more than a cheap slogan,” he said. “Higher fuel economy standards increase traffic deaths, as the National Academy of Sciences found in its 2001 study on the federal fuel economy program.”

Environmentalists said the measure falls short both in fuel savings and relief for hard-pressed consumers.

“President Bush must have no clue how much gas costs in this country. These new rules will do nothing to relieve the pain that Americans are feeling at the pump,” said Kevin S. Curtis, vice president of National Environmental Trust.

The plan is a “missed opportunity” because technology exists to raise U.S. fuel standards by over four times as much, said Brendan Bell of Sierra Club.

“Almost a hundred years ago the Ford Model T got 25 miles per gallon,” he said. “Are they really telling Americans that the best we can do is one mile worse than the Model T?”

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