Congress takes up fuel saving

Automakers, UAW to testify against much tougher rules

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March 14, 2007|By Detroit Free Press

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Rep. John D. Dingell, the Michigan Democrat who co-wrote the original fuel economy standards for U.S. cars and trucks in 1975, said yesterday that he's open to new alternatives, but had not committed to any yet.

"We have done very well with corporate average fuel economy. It is now my view that we have to go rather further," Dingell said yesterday in a conference call with reporters. "I'm hopeful we won't get stuck in old-fashioned thinking on the issue, such as to where to set the standard. It's my view we need a new approach."

Domestic and foreign, management and labor representatives of the U.S. auto industry are scheduled to present a rare united front to Congress today to battle sharply higher fuel efficiency rules for cars and trucks that could cost $114 billion. The leaders of General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co., the Chrysler Group, the U.S. arm of Toyota and the United Auto Workers will testify to a subcommittee of Dingell's House Energy and Commerce Committee about proposals for higher fuel economy standards in what may be the first time they've testified together before Congress.

It may not be enough to prevail.

All automakers have said that they consider President Bush's goal of 4 percent annual increases in efficiency standards too high. While Ford, Chrysler and Toyota will say they could abide unspecified increases as long as they're set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration instead of Congress, GM will contend that the whole system is flawed, and call for new approaches.

But those arguments have few backers on Capitol Hill, as global warming and energy independence concerns have made raising fuel economy standards a top priority for many lawmakers.

Congress hasn't increased the standards for passenger cars since they were established in 1974 at 27.5 mpg, when Detroit automakers warned such rules would force them to sell vehicles no larger than Ford Pintos and Chevy Novas. Since then, the automakers have fought most attempts to a standstill, and the demand for action has risen.

In a Senate hearing last week, Sen. John Kerry mentioned his failed 2002 bill to raise the standards, blaming the auto industry for its defeat. At one point, the Massachusetts Democrat pounded his fist on the committee table when asking Nicole Nason, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, why the administration wouldn't commit to requiring automakers to meet 4 percent increases.

"There's substantial frustration with the reluctance to excite the industry with a new performance standard," Kerry said.

Democratic Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts plans to reintroduce his bill today proposing a fuel economy target of 35 mpg for all vehicles by 2018 - not far from the 34 mpg by 2017 that would be the result of Bush's proposals. Markey, who's been in Congress since 1976 and sits on Dingell's committee, has sponsored similar bills for the past eight years.

Supporters of tougher standards have not coalesced around a single bill to raise the Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE. Sixteen senators have backed a bill by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, calling for a 35 mpg average for all vehicles by 2019, while six others co-sponsor Illinois Democratic Sen. Barack Obama's bill requiring NHTSA to consider 4 percent annual increases and justify anything less. In the House, 19 lawmakers have signed onto a bill calling for standards of 33 mpg by 2016.

One of the industry's main defenses will be that it should not shoulder the entire cost burden of attacking foreign energy demand and global warming. The administration estimates the cost of its plan at $114 billion for the entire industry and $85 billion for Detroit, while the UAW has warned that the changes could eliminate 17,000 jobs as automakers shift small-car production out of the country.

Fuel economy rules also could be swept into the larger debate over whether to regulate greenhouse gas emissions across the economy, whether through "cap and trade" systems or even a carbon tax.

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