Senate votes to increase vehicles' fuel efficiency

Measure would raise standards to 35 mpg by 2020

June 22, 2007|By Noam N. Levey | Noam N. Levey,Los Angeles Times

Washington -- The Senate passed an energy bill last night that includes an increase in automobile fuel economy, new laws against energy price-gouging and a requirement for huge increases in the production of ethanol.

In an eleventh-hour compromise fashioned after two days of closed-door meetings, an agreement was reached to increase average fuel economy by 40 percent to 35 miles per gallon for cars, SUVs and pickup trucks by 2020.

But the fuel economy issue threatened to topple the legislation up to the last minute. Majority Leader Harry Reid held off the vote until late into the evening so several senators could be called back to Capitol Hill to provide the 60-vote margin needed to overcome a threatened filibuster from pro-auto industry senators.

Shortly before midnight, senators voted, 62-32, to cut off debate and followed by passing the bill, 65-27.

Maryland Sens. Benjamin L. Cardin and Barbara A. Mikulski voted for the bill.

The measure now awaits action by the House, which is expected to take it up next week. But attempts to combine the two bills and send legislation to President Bush probably won't be possible until later this year.

White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said the compromise was "a step in the right direction," although the administration is leery of the a broad standard for all vehicles.

The compromise came about last evening just as it appeared that an energy bill that many hoped would begin to steer America away from its reliance on fossil fuels was being substantially weakened.

In the face of opposition from Republicans, Democratic leaders were forced to drop an expansive tax package that would have created $28.5 billion in incentives for the development of energy from renewable sources such as the wind and sun.

Democrats also could not include a path-breaking new requirement that electric utilities nationwide generate 15 percent of their electricity from cleaner energy sources.

"I'm disappointed," Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said after the setbacks. "Our wonderful world is being destroyed by fossil fuels."

But the unexpected breakthrough on fuel efficiency standards could make this year's energy bill the most significant in years.

Automakers have long complained that stricter standards would cost U.S. jobs, and year after year they succeeded in turning aside efforts to raise them.

Particularly galling to environmentalists, the industry clung to lower fuel standards for light trucks, including sport utilities, pickups and minivans. Now, an automaker's car fleet must average 27.5 mpg. Light trucks must average 22.2 mpg, a standard that is scheduled to increase to 24 mpg by 2011.

This year, facing new pressure from the Democratic congressional majority and growing public anxiety about global warming, the auto industry and its allies on Capitol Hill conceded that some increase was possible. But they continued to fight efforts to eliminate the distinction between cars and trucks.

Yesterday, senators from both parties resoundingly rejected that. Under the compromise, cars and trucks will be lumped together to calculate the fuel efficiency of an automaker's vehicles, requiring that the average 35 mpg standard be achieved by model year 2020.

Senators also voted to instruct the Transportation Department to develop a plan to ensure that 50 percent of the vehicles sold in the United States be capable of using alternative fuels by 2015.

"Our message to the domestic auto industry is, `You can do this,'" said Sen. Thomas R. Carper, a Delaware Democrat.

In one nod to the industry, the Senate abandoned a plan to require 4 percent annual increases in fuel efficiency from 2020 to 2031, giving federal regulators the discretion to increase standards "to the maximum feasible" level.

In the House, Democratic leaders are working to assemble their own package; it does not include new fuel standards, although several lawmakers have expressed interest in adding them.

The Senate's bipartisan embrace of new standards increases the likelihood that a final energy bill would include the provision.

Bush, who toured a new nuclear power plant in Alabama yesterday, has voiced concerns about a number of ideas being advocated by congressional Democrats, including lumping together cars and light trucks.

The president has also complained that Democratic energy proposals do little to promote domestic production of oil and gas at a time when consumers face rising gas prices.

Noam N. Levey writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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