Senators Offer New Fuel Economy Proposal

By: Anthony Fontanelle

Senators backing the automakers drafted a new compromise fuel economy proposal late last Wednesday in an effort to avoid a massive fuel economy raise from being approved.

Michigan Democrats Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow said that they offered a new proposal to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. - a key supporter of a Senate energy bill that calls for notable increases in corporate average fuel economy (CAFÉ). Levin and Stabenow declined to tackle the details of their new plan. But they said that they would vote to block the full energy bill if a compromise was not reached. "We're going to run the numbers on it tonight," Feinstein said.

Earlier, supporters backing the energy bill agreed to scale back CAFE increases after 2020 - a move automakers called inadequate. The current Senate fuel bill requires automakers to average 35 miles per gallon for cars and trucks combined by 2020 and then face annual four percent increases through 2030, ending up with a 52 mpg standard. Automakers have called the proposed standards "wildly extreme," adding that it would cost them tens of billions of dollars to comply.

A bunch of senators, including Levin and Stabenow, had proposed the "Pryor-Bond-Levin" amendment for its sponsors, which would increase passenger car CAFE mandates to 36 mpg by 2022 and trucks to 30 mpg by 2025. Lawmakers are now trying to come up with an alternative that would mend the Senate fuel bill and the Pryor-Bond-Levin proposal, which had won the support of automakers.

"Any fuel economy increase has to be responsible, and it's got to comprehend the fundamental differences between cars and light trucks," said Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents Detroit's Big Three, the Toyota Motor Corp. and BMW among others.

In addition to Levin's revised compromise, a group of senators led by Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, filed a 38-page amendment to the energy bill that includes slashing the four percent increases after 2020. The said amendment also would get rid of a requirement that automakers make 80 percent of their fleet capable of running on flexible fuels like E85 ethanol by 2015. The Nissan Motor Co. wanted that provision. The same would also benefit the and auto parts in case GM pushes its plan to produce flex-fuel vehicles.

The Pryor-Bond-Levin proposal requires 50 percent of vehicles to run on alternative fuels and allows automakers to count hybrids as alternative vehicles. But the Pryor-Bond-Levin bill appears in grave trouble and Nissan's opposition to key aspects of it may be one reason it fails, officials from other automakers said. Both Tennessee senators intended to vote against the alternative and both Mississippi senators were leaning against it. Nissan has a plant in Canton, Miss., where it builds the Altima and the Quest.

On Wednesday, Levin met with Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark. to try to strike a further compromise. "We're putting all the options on the table and talking about them as they come up to see if we find something that people can live with," Pryor said in an interview late Wednesday. "It's very close, and both sides agree the outcome is uncertain."

Automakers were not pacified by the Stevens amendment. "This is a ploy to show, 'Look how generous we are.' The bill is still unattainable," said one senior domestic auto official. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., referring to Detroit automakers, has this to say: "The time has come to speak for the American people, not three car manufacturers that are closing plants and laying off people."

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said talks were under way to "meld the two approaches" to produce efficient fuel mandate.

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