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New SUV Fuel Standards to Be Completed Next Week

The Bush administration is expected to complete its overhaul of fuel economy rules for pickup trucks, minivans and most sport utility vehicles next week, implementing a new system that would seek better gas mileage.

The rules, first proposed last August, would require the auto industry to raise standards for light trucks beginning in 2008. All automakers would have to comply with the new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) system by 2011, the most significant change to the program in three decades.

Under the current system, automakers must maintain an average of 21.6 miles per gallon for 2006 model year light trucks, a number that grows to 22.2 mpg for 2007 vehicles. Passenger cars, which would not be covered by the new rules, need a 27.5 mpg average.

The proposal issued last summer would lead to a projected fleetwide average of 24 mpg by 2011, a total improvement of 1.8 mpg over four years. Automakers would need to meet fuel economy targets based on their mix of vehicles.

Nearly two months after President Bush declared that "America is addicted to oil," environmental groups said a stronger plan could help the administration advance its goal of reducing the nation's dependence on imported oil amid high gas prices and worries about energy security.

"This will be a real test about how serious he is about ending this addiction," said David Friedman, research director of the clean vehicles program for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Bush, in a news conference on Tuesday, did not mention fuel economy changes but expressed interest in working with Congress "to advance an agenda that will make us less dependent on foreign oil, an agenda that includes hybrid cars and advanced ethanol fuels and hydrogen cells."

The plan would move away from a single standard for light trucks and create different mileage goals for six sizes of vehicles. In 2008, smaller SUVs like the Toyota RAV 4 would need to reach a target of 26.8 mpg while large vehicles such as the Chevrolet Silverado would have to hit 20.4 mpg.

The auto industry, which has fought past attempts to raise fuel economy standards, but expressed support for the plan's direction, said the new system would mean seven straight years of higher gas mileage requirements.

"Those standards will be a challenge but automakers are committed to meeting them," said Shosteck, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. have said the current system puts them at strategic disadvantage against their competitors because sales of large SUVs must be offset by the sale of smaller light trucks to comply with fuel economy rules.

The administration said last summer that the reforms would save more fuel than any previous rulemaking in the history of the light truck program, or about 10 billion gallons of oil over the lifetime of the vehicles sold during the span.

Environmental groups have sought a higher fleetwide average and increased oil savings and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. The oil savings represent only a fraction of what Americans consume each year, they noted.

"We hope they take the opportunity to save oil and not aim low here," said Eric Haxthausen, an economist with Environmental Defense who has recommended a fleetwide average of 26 mpg.

Groups closely following the deliberations said the administration could consider making the standards apply for the first time to large SUVs and vans weighing between 8,500 and 10,000 pounds, as reported Wednesday by The Wall Street Journal.

A spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration declined comment.