Auto Industry Presses Undecided Senators On Fuel Economy

Industry looking to add to the opposition of fuel economy standards increase; says increase would reduce vehicle variety and cost jobs.

WASHINGTON (AP) - Dozens of auto dealers and executives lobbied undecided senators on Tuesday to oppose a Senate energy plan that would raise fuel efficiency standards during the next decade. Among the undecided is Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D.

Environmental groups and supporters of a Senate energy package countered with their own efforts, saying the auto industry was falsely rehashing old arguments that improving gas mileage requirements would lead to job losses and fewer choices of large vehicles.

''This is a tactic that the industry has used over and over again since the 1970s,'' said Philip Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust.

The Senate was expected to take a key vote on fuel efficiency standards this week, possibly as soon as Wednesday. Supporters of the Senate bill said more efficient vehicles could help reduce the nation's dependence upon imported oil and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The current bill would require the fleetwide average to meet 35 miles per gallon for passenger cars and pickup trucks, sport utility vehicles and vans by 2020, an increase of about 10 mpg from current levels. Under the plan, automakers would need to boost fuel economy by 4 percent a year from 2020 to 2030.

The industry has coalesced around an alternative offered by a group of lawmakers, led by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. It would require carmakers to meet a fleetwide average of at least 36 mpg for cars by 2022 and 30 mpg for pickups, SUVs and vans by 2025.

The approach, backed by Democrats Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, would boost flexible fuel vehicles running on ethanol blends.

Automakers said the current Senate plan would cost them billions of dollars and require them to shed jobs at a time when domestic companies are already hurting.

But backers of the plan, which received broad support in committee, said the industry has lost credibility in Congress because they have used similar tactics to oppose fuel economy increases in the past.

Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate's No. 2 Democratic leader, said the industry's approach was ''strangely reminiscent of the same arguments they used in 1975'' when the rules were first approved.

''I wish that my friends in Detroit would spend a little more time with their engineering department and a little less time with their legal department when it comes to these issues,'' Durbin said.

The vote was expected to be close and several senators said they were undecided on the competing plans.

Conrad said the bill ''certainly is moving in the right direction'' but he is also considering the Levin alternative. North Dakota's other senator, Democrat Byron Dorgan, has expressed support for the underlying bill.

Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., said he had opposed increasing the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, but ''like a lot of my colleagues, I realize this has to be done.''

''I'm glad that we're going to raise CAFE standards - now the only issue is how much and how soon,'' Coleman said.

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said he had met with auto officials and found some of their arguments persuasive - but he remained undecided.

''I think we need to do something that doesn't penalize companies that have already made major improvements,'' Vitter said.

The list of undecideds also included Democrats Jon Tester and Max Baucus of Montana, Ben Nelson of Nebraska.

Dozens of auto dealers from around the country met with their home state senators about the plan while Detroit's companies sent top executives to make personal appeals.

Automakers were targeting undecided senators and those who represent mostly rural states with a large percentage of pickup truck owners.

The industry opposes combining the standards for passenger cars and light trucks, saying it would strain their ability to offer a variety of large vehicles.

''You can't provide towing capability and off-road capability and people-hauling capability off a tiny vehicle built off a car chassis,'' said General Motors Corp.'s Mark LaNeve before a meeting with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

Mark Fields, Ford Motor Co.'s president of the Americas, and Tom Lasorda, DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group president, also met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Vehicle fuel efficiency has remained stagnant for the past two decades, and Congress has not upgraded the standards since the mid-1970s.

The fleet of passenger cars is required to get an average of 27.5 mpg, while SUVs, pickup trucks and vans must get an average of 22.2 mpg, for a combined average of about 25 mpg.


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