Higher mpg required of SUVs

U.S. raises mileage standard for `light trucks,' including minivans

March 30, 2006|By MICHAEL DRESSER | MICHAEL DRESSER,SUN REPORTER

The U.S. Transportation Department made some of the most far-reaching changes to its fuel economy standards in the 27-year history of the program yesterday - adopting rules that will raise mileage requirements for minivans, SUVs and some pickup trucks.

But environmental groups expressed disappointment at the regulations, contending the Bush administration had missed an opportunity to make meaningful strides toward cleaning the air and meeting the president's stated goal of breaking a national "addiction" to imported oil.

The new rules, which will apply to 2008-to-2011 vehicles, raise the average mileage requirements for the vehicles from the current 21.6 miles per gallon to 24.1 mpg by 2011 in annual steps. They should save an estimated 10.7 billion gallons of fuel over the lifetime of those vehicles.

It marks the second time the Bush administration has increased the mileage targets for the group of vehicles, some of which had been exempt from the fuel efficiency rules.

The administration previously raised the target from 20.7 mpg - where it had been frozen by Congress for almost a decade - to 22.2 mpg for 2007.

In unveiling the new requirements yesterday at the Baltimore Ravens' stadium, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta called them "significant improvements" in standards for the vehicles.

While they are collectively known as "light trucks," the category includes minivans and SUVs.

Transportation officials selected an upper level of the Camden Yards football stadium that provided a panoramic view of various modes of transportation - including light rail, freight trains and a spaghetti bowl of highway interchanges.

Billing the changes as the first "complete reform" of fuel economy requirements for light trucks since standards were introduced in 1979, Mineta said they "close loopholes that have long plagued the current system."

"We are pushing the envelope," he said.

Last August, the administration first proposed higher standards but did not include the heaviest vehicles - those between 8,500 and 10,000 pounds. The revised rules include about 240,000 SUVs - including such behemoths as the Hummer H2, Chevrolet Suburban and Ford Expedition - that fall into that weight category.

"We decided we could ask more of the manufacturers than we did last August," said Mineta.

While the administration decided to extend the fuel economy rules to the heavier SUVs, it continued to exclude a larger number of pickup trucks in the same weight category. Officials said such vehicles are mostly used for commercial purposes - an assertion questioned by environmentalists.

The rule changes do not apply to passenger cars, which now must meet a standard of 27.5 mpg.

Mineta said the administration tried to be mindful of the economic impact of the rules. Domestic automakers, especially Ford and General Motors, have posted heavy losses in recent quarters and have been taking steps to severely cut back their work forces.

"The automobile industry is in a very fragile state right now," he said.

Jennifer Moore, public affairs manager for Ford Motor Co., expressed general satisfaction with the latest changes to the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) program:

"The new CAFE standards will pose significant challenges, but at Ford, we're confident that our drive toward innovation will result in fuel economy gains."

Sherrie Childers Arb, director for communications on the environment and energy for General Motors Corp., described the rules as "slightly more stringent" than last year's proposals. She noted that the company had called those proposed standards "challenging" but "achievable."

Environmental groups were unimpressed with the final standards, saying they fall far short of their expectations. They said the rules are only marginally stricter than those proposed last year, which would have set the standard at 24 mpg.

"Why such a modest change?" was the reaction of Eric Haxthausen, an economist with Environmental Defense in Washington. He said his organization had hoped to see a standard closer to 26 miles per gallon.

"This is less than a week's worth of gasoline," he said.

Roland Wong, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the standards don't come close to the action needed to deliver on President Bush's promise in his State of the Union address to reduce U.S. dependence of foreign oil suppliers.

"We think this administration proposal is a baby step when bold action is required," he said. "Bold rhetoric is not being matched by bold action."

In Congress, environmental advocates also expressed dismay. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, a New York Republican and chairman of the House Science Committee, described the changes as "a missed opportunity." He said the new CAFE targets could have been set much higher "in a safe and cost-effective manner."

"The president rightly pointed out in his State of the Union address that when it comes to oil, we are a nation of addicts," Boehlert said.

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