Senate urges automakers to raise fuel efficiency

Opponents say increases would mean less-safe vehicles


WASHINGTON -- In a sign of the political recalibrations sparked by high gasoline costs, senators urged representatives of the auto industry and labor yesterday to back efforts to raise fuel efficiency standards that they have resisted for years.

The lawmakers grilled Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta, berating him for doing too little to increase the gasoline economy requirements for the automobiles that burn about half of the oil consumed in the United States every day.

"We're in a crisis. Your own administration says that," Sen. Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, told Mineta.

She chided him over a recent move by his agency to slightly increase the mileage rules for SUVs and small trucks, starting in the 2011 model years. Under the decision, the fuel efficiency standards for these vehicles will be set at 24 miles per gallon.

The major question looming before Congress and the Bush administration is how to go about toughening fuel efficiency standards for the broader range of passenger cars. It is an issue that has stalemated Washington for years - largely because of the opposition of automakers, who have clout within the Republican Party, and auto workers, an influential voice among Democrats.

The opponents have argued that significant increases in fuel efficiency standards would result in vehicles that are less safe and would contribute to the loss of U.S. jobs to foreign manufacturers.

But even those, like President Bush and other Republicans, who have long argued that the issue is best solved by market forces, are now discussing the need for new government involvement.

"We've met the enemy, and it is us: We, the people," said Sen. Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi and chairman of the Senate subcommittee that conducted yesterday's hearing on the issue.

A sweeping energy bill passed last year bypassed the issue. But less than a year later, Democrats and Republicans alike are saying that something must be done to make cars more efficient.

Consumer complaints about rising prices at the pump have spurred new calls to increase the mileage requirements for passenger cars from the current fleet average of 27.5 miles per gallon - a standard first set in 1975 and achieved in 1990.

Yesterday's hearing underscored a key difference in approach that might stymie the effort. Some Democrats are pressing for immediate action by passing a law to set a new fleet standard at 33 mpg.

But the administration opposes imposing new requirements on cars until federal fuel economy rules are changed to make them more flexible for industry.

Maura Reynolds writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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