Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., ridiculed the administration's characterization of its recent increase in small truck and SUV mileage as "bold" saying it amounts to a 1.8-mile-per-gallon boost over the next four years.
With motorists using nearly half of the country's oil and U.S. gasoline prices at crisis level for some families, "shouldn't there be a bolder approach" to fuel savings, she asked Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta.
Mineta, at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing, reiterated the administration's opposition to imposing tougher mileage requirements on cars until federal fuel economy rules are changed to make them more flexible for industry.
Currently automakers must meet a fleet average for passenger cars of 27.5 miles per gallon, a standard enacted by Congress in 1975 in response to the oil shocks unleashed by the Arab oil embargo. CBS News correspondent Bob Orr reports that car makers have already found ways to build cars which are both popular and efficient — the Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla both get more than 33 miles per gallon. But they are also building gas guzzlers, such as large sedans.
"The president and I are committed to improving fuel economy across the board through an open regulatory process built upon sound science and economics, but we will not accept an arbitrary statutory increase under the current passenger cars system," Mineta told the committee.
The 27.5 mpg standard "was not, and certainly is not now based on sound science or economics," said Mineta. President Bush has asked Congress to allow the Transportation Department to revamp the program so it can impose a sliding scale requirement taking into account different vehicle sizes.
It was that kind of approach that was taken in the recent increases in SUV and small truck mileage rules that require automakers to increase the mileage for those vehicles by 1.8 mpg to 24 mpg beginning with the 2011 model year.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., called such an increase "abysmal" in view of the technological advances available to automakers and with gasoline prices at more than $3 a gallon in many places across the country.
"Everyone knows the technology is so far ahead of you," she told Mineta, noting that some manufacturers are making pickups that get 38 mpg. "You are so far behind what's even happening in the marketplace."