Senate Approves Auto Mileage Plan

by : Anthony Fontanelle

The Senate approved legislation on Thursday that would, for the first time in three decades, require automakers to produce vehicles with significantly higher fuel mileage.

Senators approved an amendment to a mileage bill that would require an improvement in the average efficiency of the new U.S. vehicle fleet from 25 miles per gallon now to 35 mpg by 2020, about four percent raise annually.

"If we're really smart we'll find a way to make this new approach to fuel efficiency work, to make it work for domestic auto companies, their shareholders, their employees and our nation to reduce our dependence on foreign oil," said Sen. Thomas Carper, a co-sponsor of the mileage bill.

The auto industry and its allies in the Senate, despondent with the amendment after failing to earn support for a more palatable alternative, had mounted a last-minute campaign to interrupt the passage or possibly kill the overall energy bill, said a senior congressional aide.

Auto companies have said that a strict requirement could financially devastate struggling Detroit automakers, including General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co., and the Chrysler Group. But lawmakers said that provisions in the final product were achievable. "It will not do damage to the industry. It will not take away your pickup truck," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat.

The legislature tried to 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.

Joan Claybrook, the president of Consumer Group Public Citizen and a former head of the agency that administer's CAFE rules, called the measure a "step backward" because it would give regulators and industry too much discretion. The Consumer Federation of America, on the other hand, commended the bill, saying it will cut oil imports by 15 percent and reduce tailpipe emissions by one billion tons.

Key Democrats, including Dianne Feinstein of California, Carper, and John Kerry of Massachusetts, negotiated with key Republicans, like Ted Stevens of Alaska and Olympia Snowe of Maine, to entertain changes from their original more stringent proposal. Under the proposal, the legislature would leave it up to regulators to settle on feasible standards under the federal CAFE program, beginning with model year 2011 vehicles.

Automakers had lobbied against a specific CAFE target but proponents of more stringent rules, including some environmentalists, said that there are few viable alternatives to CAFE in the near term to achieve meaningful fuel savings.

The Senate plan also puts a greater stress on industry efforts to speed up development of gasoline-electric hybrids, electric vehicles and other vehicles that run on a mix of gasoline and alternative fuels like ethanol. As such, the Senate compromise bill would require the Transportation Department to formulate a plan to ensure that 50 percent of vehicles sold in the United States are capable of running on gasoline alternatives by 2015, but only if those products are available and affordable.

The original Senate bill would have required automakers to achieve an additional four percent in annual fuel economy gains after 2020. But the amended version allows regulators to set feasible additional targets. The Senate bill would require a fleetwide average of 35 mpg by 2020 but some vehicles, like sedans, would continue to perform more efficiently than larger sports utilities, pickups and vans. Meanwhile, an energy bill in the House of Representatives is smoothly moving, as if unhindered by .