Senate Gives Gas Guzzlers A Pass

A new energy agenda being fashioned by the Senate will do little to force automakers to substantially increase fuel economy, although cars and SUVs gobble up 40 percent of the oil that is used daily in the United States.

The Senate turned back an attempt Tuesday to include in the energy bill a requirement that automobiles cut gasoline use by 45 percent over the next dozen years. Instead it approved an industry-supported measure that includes new requirements that must be considered before the government can begin imposing future fuel economy improvements.

With the auto fuel issue essentially disposed of, the senators planned to turn their attention Wednesday to electricity market issues.

Democrats have criticized a largely Republican-crafted electricity proposal, saying it fails to adequately address consumer protections — an area of increased concern in the aftermath of the California power crisis and market abuses by Enron and other electricity traders.

Opponents to the tougher automobile fuel measure argued that manufacturers would be forced to stop making larger cars and SUVs, resulting in thousands of autoworkers to lose their jobs and forcing consumers to buy smaller, less safe vehicles.

Sen. Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, called such claims a red herring and said his amendment, directing new cars achieved a fleet average of 40 miles per gallon by 2015, was technologically feasible without making vehicles smaller or resulting in industry job losses.

But his amendment was rejected 65-32. Instead, senators by a 66-30 vote directed that the Transportation Department consider tougher fuel economy standards, but only after taking into account impact on jobs, highway safety and other issues that could adversely harm the U.S. auto industry.

It assures "that future standards are based on sound science" rather than "a politically arbitrary (mileage) figure," said Republican Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri, whose state has a half dozen auto production facilities.

But critics said it would create unnecessary hurdles to any significant increases in fuel economy by the transportation agency with future rules likely to be challenged more easily in court.

"We are going backwards," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat.

The average fuel economy for passenger vehicles has been declining since 1988 as more and more motorists have favored buying sport utility vehicles, as well as vans and pickups, that are not required to meet as stringent fuel economy standard as passenger cars. A number of senators were planning an amendment to close the gap between the SUV and passenger sedan requirement, but its prospect is uncertain in light of Tuesday's solid twin votes against more stringent CAFE standards.

The core of the anti-CAFE debate focused on jobs and consumer choice.

"What about choice?" asked Sen. Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican. "This is still America."

Pointing to a picture of a European mini-car he had brought to the Senate floor, Lott declared: "I don't think we should be forced to drive that automobile."

Supporters of higher CAFE requirements cited a National Academy of Sciences report that concluded that substantial increases in fuel economy are achievable using current technology — such as advanced transmission designs, aerodynamic improvements and direct fuel injection — without reducing vehicle size or jeopardizing safety.

But they failed to sway enough senators. And opponents quoted from the same study, which also noted that when vehicles were downsized to make them more fuel efficient in the 1970s and 1980s, the result was an increase in highway deaths.