Senate defeats tougher gas mileage standards

Mikulski joins opponents of high vehicle efficiency in bid to preserve jobs

March 14, 2002|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Bowing to vigorous opposition from automakers and their workers yesterday, the Senate easily defeated a proposal to require vehicles to become more fuel-efficient as a way to protect the environment.

By a vote of 62-38, the Senate decided instead to direct the Bush administration to study how best to raise fuel-efficiency standards and to make recommendations within two years - effectively putting off action on the issue.

Leaders of the drive for higher standards had argued that the result of adopting them would be cleaner air, a healthier environment and energy conservation.

They were defeated largely because they lost the backing of many of their usual allies, including Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat.

Mikulski and others said they feared a loss of jobs because many vehicles could not meet the higher standards and would have to be phased out.

"I'm an industrial-strength environmentalist, not a pure environmentalist," said Mikulski, adding that she voted against the increase in fuel-efficiency standards in hopes of saving 1,500 jobs at General Motors Corp.'s van assembly plant on Broening Highway in southeast Baltimore.

"I believe in energy conservation, but I also believe in job conservation."

The 67-year-old plant is already on GM's target list for closing next year because the Astro and Safari minivans made there are not selling well.

State officials say Mikulski's support for GM on the fuel standards issue is an element in their campaign to persuade the automaker to begin producing a more popular vehicle at the plant.

"She has provided critical support time and time again for General Motors," said David S. Iannucci, Maryland's secretary of business and economic development.

"We never fail to remind General Motors of her support."

Paul S. Sarbanes, Maryland's other Democratic senator, voted for the proposal to nearly double the gas mileage minimums over the next 15 years - which would have been the first such increase in 27 years.

"Sarbanes has consistently supported increased fuel-efficiency standards," said his spokesman, Jesse Jacobs.

"The industry was able to meet them in the past, and Sarbanes believes that they can meet them again."

Mikulski, who has voted in the past to raise fuel standards, acknowledged that her vote yesterday was "linked to" the fate of the Baltimore plant.

But she said she also believed it was "good national policy" to avoid imposing new rules on automakers that the industry says would spell the end of low-gas-mileage sport utility vehicles.

Under current standards, automakers must meet a fleet average of 27.5 miles per gallon for sedans and 20.7 for SUVs, minivans and pickups.

The leading proposal would have combined the two categories and required automakers to reach a fleet average of 36 miles per gallon by 2015.

Most larger vehicles manage only 15 to 20 miles per gallon now because they are so heavy.

The industry warns that it would have to sacrifice size and weight - and thus safety - to meet the higher standards. Mikulski contended that car-pooling mothers, in particular, would be hurt by the loss of SUVs and minivans.

"Anyone who rides the 495 Beltway in Washington or the 695 Beltway in Baltimore knows we face big trucks, we face road rage," Mikulski said on the Senate floor.

"Mothers want to be in the functional civilian equivalent of a Humvee. And why? They're scared for their children, and they're scared for their safety. So they go big and they go bulk."

Senators who argued for raising the fuel standards said the threat against the SUV was nothing more than a shrewd scare tactic, leveled in advertising intended to reach voters in the states of swing senators - particularly those up for re-election this year in close contests.

Six Democrats seeking re-election this year voted with the auto industry to postpone action on the fuel-efficiency standards.

"This is a classic example of why we need campaign finance reform: This is money in politics," said Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat who was a leader of the losing effort to raise gas mileage minimums.

Opponents "defined the issue in a way that made it very difficult for certain senators in certain states," Kerry argued. He said those senators faced "an onslaught of advertising" warning voters that they were about to be "stripped of something that matters to them."

Sen. Susan M. Collins of Maine, one of only six Republicans who voted to raise the fuel standards, said the industry argument that the only way to achieve high gas mileage was to drive lighter, less safe vehicles was "simply a false choice."

Stricter rules on fuel efficiency, Collins asserted, would force the industry to develop innovative technology that would produce "better trucks and more money in our pockets" and reduce reliance on foreign oil.

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