PIRG campaign pushes tougher fuel standards for SUVs, light trucks

Change will save money, environment, group says

June 17, 1999|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group joined conservation organizations yesterday in a campaign to raise federally mandated fuel efficiency standards for sport utility vehicles (SUVs), light trucks and minivans.

Chapters of the Public Interest Research Group in Maryland and 32 other states issued releases yesterday calling on Congress and the president to close a loophole in federal fuel economy standards that allow the popular vehicles -- Ford Explorers, Lincoln Navigators, Jeep Wranglers and the like -- to burn more gas per mile than the average family car.

Lower fuel efficiency leads to more emission of gases. The emissions contribute to smog and global warming and cost drivers more at the gas pump, said Eileen Brancale, campaign director for Maryland's Public Interest Research Group (MaryPIRG).

"If we close the loophole in miles-per-gallon standards, curbing global warming pollution will save money for American families," she said at a news conference in the parking lot of the White Marsh Wal-Mart.

The Sierra Club and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation also have been pushing for higher fuel economy standards for SUVs.

The Public Interest Research Group news conferences were timed to coincide with the House of Representatives' consideration of a measure that would freeze fuel efficiency standards at their current levels.

If SUVs, which made up nearly half of new-car sales last year, were required to meet the same standards as passenger cars, the United States could reduce fossil fuel pollution by 187 million tons a year, a report released by MaryPIRG and other state chapters said.

U.S. automakers are developing technology to clean up auto emissions, said Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. Rather than enforce fuel efficiency standards, government should be looking to reduce auto emissions, she said.

The fuel standards, known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, were established in the mid-1970s as a reaction to the OPEC oil embargo. The Department of Transportation, which sets the standards, began to raise standards for light trucks and SUVs in 1994, but every year since then Congress has added riders to the department's appropriations bills freezing standards at 1994 levels.

The House Transportation Appropriations subcommittee approved a similar rider May 27, the same day 31 senators sent a letter to President Clinton urging him to work with Congress to increase the CAFE standards. Although they have voted to raise the standards in the past, neither of Maryland's senators signed the letter.

Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes had a procedural objection, explained Jesse L. Jacobs, Sarbanes' press secretary.

"The senator has a long-established voting record on CAFE standards," Jacobs said. "[The subcommittee vote] was an action by the House, and we had a little bit of concern that the letter was directed to the president instead of the House."

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski is "not in total agreement with what they were asking," said her press secretary, Johanna Ramos-Boyer.

Mikulski fears that increasing CAFE standards on U.S. automakers would make it more difficult for them to compete with foreign manufacturers, Ramos- Boyer said.

Pub Date: 6/17/99

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