Auto Fuel Efficiency Standards Dead in Senate Energy Bill

The Senate Wednesday voted to strip from an energy bill now under consideration language that would  have required an increase in auto fuel efficiency standards, an increase that critics said would have meant the end of the sports utility vehicle.

The 62-38 vote effectively kills an attempt to up the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards to require cars to get 35 miles per gallon of gas by the year 2013. Currently, CAFE standards instituted 13 years ago require sedans to get 27.5 mpg and SUVs, minivans, and light trucks to get 20.7 mpg.

Lawmakers then voted 56-44 to exempt pickup trucks from any increase in fuel efficiency standards.

Sen. John Kerry, who had wanted to add an amendment to require cars to get 36 mpg by 2015, called the attempt to direct the fuel efficiency debate toward protecting manufacturing jobs an "artful dodge, a great escape."

"We are going backward," Kerry said. "The technology is available today to meet the higher standard."

Supporters of the tougher measures argued that new standards are needed to cut down on gasoline and oil consumption which has made the country increasingly dependent on foreign sources.

Passenger vehicles use about 40 percent of all the oil used today, or nearly 8 million barrels a day. SUV's, minivans, and pickups account for nearly half of all vehicles on the road today.

Opponents of the bill said increased standards would limit consumer choice and possibly jeopardize people who would be orced to drive lighter vehicles.

"American women love their SUVs and minivans ... because of their safety," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., a co-sponsor of the less stringent proposal.

If higher CAFE standards had become law "about the only way we could get there is to put everybody into glorified golf carts," said Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond.

The amendment offered by Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Bond, R-Mo., instead directs the Department of Transportation to increase the standards for cars and light trucks based on a number of criteria including technological feasibility, economic practicality, effect of other government motor vehicle standards on fuel economy, the need to conserve energy, effect of motor vehicle safety, effects on air quality, employment and cost, and lead time required for new technologies.

The bottom line, however, is that DOT would set the standard rather than having what Levin calls "an arbitrary standard" set by Congress.

It would also give automakers two years to comply with whatever new standards were set by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. Previously, Congress had prohibited NHTSA from studying fuel economy increases.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.C., called the vote "a missed opportunity ... to pass meaningful (fuel economy) standards" and noted that it has been 15 years since the federal regulations had been changed.

The House in its version of the energy legislation calls for modest limits on the amount of oil used for motor vehicles, a requirement expected to amount to about a mile-per-gallon improvement in new car fleets.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.