WASHINGTON – The Bush administration has made it clear that the government cannot do much to lower gasoline prices, especially in the short term, but it is trying to do something about how much gasoline gets burned every day.
Click in the video box to the right to watch a report by FOX News' Mike Emanuel.
Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta (search) on Tuesday announced the federal government's plan to order automakers to increase fuel efficiency for all light trucks, which includes pickups, minivans and SUVs, by 2011.
Mineta said the increase in fuel economy standards will save consumers 10 billion gallons of fuel in the first three years.
"This is a plan that will save gas and result in less pain at the pump for motorists without sacrificing safety," Mineta said from Atlanta, where he delivered the news while overlooking the busy connector between Interstates 75 and 85.
The recommendation comes as fuel prices soared to an average of $2.55 per gallon nationally and as sports utility vehicles, or SUVs, remain the vehicle of choice for millions of Americans despite the recent uptick in the price to fill a tank.
"Today, these vehicles represent over 50 percent of new sales and they constitute almost 60 percent of new vehicle fuel use," Mineta said.
The proposal marks the first overhaul in 30 years for calculating corporate average fuel economy, or "CAFE," standards for light trucks. Automakers are currently required to maintain an average of 27.5 miles per gallon for passenger cars and 21 mpg for light trucks. Light trucks are required to meet 22.2 mpg for the 2007 model year.
The administration's idea is to divide light trucks into six different categories based on size — smaller models would be required to get better gas mileage than larger ones. The current system is based on an average fuel economy for the manufacturers' entire fleet of light trucks.
Critics say the new rules will only create more loopholes for automakers.
"Now, there are a whole complex set of size classes that we're concerned that automakers might try to add size to vehicles to get them to qualify for weaker standards," said Brendan Bell of the environmentalist group the Sierra Club.
One example critics point to is the exemption for supersized vehicles like Suburbans and Hummers. But the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defended the exemption.
"There are simply not very many of those vehicles in existence so the fuel savings versus the costs doesn't seem to be justified," said Administrator Jeffrey Runge.
Environmental groups disagree, and argue technology currently exists to make all vehicles efficient enough to travel 40 mpg.
"If we did that, we would save more oil than we currently import from the entire Persian Gulf (search), or that we could ever take out of the Arctic refuge combined," Bell said.
Special interest groups fought hard to keep fuel efficiency standards out of the national energy bill that was signed into law by President Bush earlier this month. Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer (search) of New York said the administration's weighing in on the debate comes a little late.
"The administration's newfound desire to increase fuel economy standards is welcome, albeit late since the energy bill that was signed into law last month did nothing to reduce our dependence on foreign sources of oil," Schumer said in a statement. "The administration should join me and others in the effort to completely close the SUV loophole and bring the entire U.S. auto fleet fuel economy standard up to 27.5 miles per gallon as soon as possible."
Transportation officials say the new standards will be phased in starting in 2008. The government insists the timing of the announcement is coincidental and not related to rising gasoline prices, which some analysts say helped drive completion of the energy bill.