|Published Monday, May 21,
Energy debate swerves around SUV, van gasoline
By GREG MILLER
Los Angeles Times
Hidden in the nation's
current debate over energy is one measure that supporters say could
do more than any other to conserve fuel - the loophole that lets
vans and sport utility vehicles escape higher fuel efficiency
Making those vehicles adhere to higher
standards "would save an amount of fuel equal to, if not greater
than, the projected production from the Arctic National Wildlife
Refuge," said Rep. John Olver, D-Mass., sponsor of a House bill that
would impose tougher standards on SUVs.
But Olver and others who want to close the loophole acknowledge
that their efforts won't pay off any time soon, and say that the way
Washington handled the issue last week underscores why.
The White House only called for further review of the "corporate
average fuel economy" standards that automakers are required to
meet. Democrats also avoided the issue. In their "Principles for
Energy Prosperity" report, House Democrats chided the White House
for paying lip service to conservation, but called for fuel
efficiency standards only "in accordance with requirements and
conditions of existing law."
And a soon-to-be-released study of CAFE standards cited in the
White House energy plan and expected to serve as a guide for
lawmakers increasingly is seen as written in the auto industry's
Frustrated opponents of the loophole say their efforts are
blocked by the powerful auto industry lobby, which has tremendous
sway in both parties.
As a result, an energy crunch that many people thought might
create the first opening in years for ratcheting up fuel economy
standards instead appears unlikely to alter the status quo.
The White House released its energy plan Thursday, amid severe
power shortages in the West and rising fuel costs across the country
that have pushed gasoline prices above $2 per gallon in some
But the politicians opposing stricter fuel economy laws may be
simply trying to give their constituents what they want. There was
new evidence Friday that Americans' appetite for big vehicles
continues to soar. A Transportation Department report released
Friday showed that the average fuel economy among new cars this year
is 24.5 miles per gallon - tying 1999 for the lowest mark since
The study estimates cars for the 2001 model year are getting an
average 28.7 miles per gallon, but light trucks are getting just
20.9. The latter category, which includes minivans and sport utility
vehicles, accounts for nearly half of the passenger vehicles sold in
the United States.
CAFE standards were signed into law by President Ford in 1975.
They require each auto company to produce cars with an average fuel
economy of 27.5 miles per gallon. But the standard for light trucks
is only 20.7 miles per gallon.
The auto industry argues that forcing SUVs and minivans to meet
the higher standards would add substantial cost to, and reduce the
performance of, a class of vehicles that has exploded in popularity
over the past decade.
Conservationists say lawmakers who carved out the exception for
light trucks never envisioned a wave of gas-guzzling SUVs and
minivans. They say that closing the loophole would reduce U.S. oil
consumption by 1 million barrels a day and prevent 187 million tons
of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.
In their dueling energy proposals, both parties addressed fuel
economy standards, but mainly by proposing tax incentives for
consumers who buy hybrid cars fueled by a combination of gas and
Many people were surprised that President Bush called for the
transportation secretary to review CAFE standards. For the past six
years, the Transportation Department wasn't allowed even to consider
the issue, under rules attached to the agency's annual funding bill
by auto industry allies in Congress.
"There are a lot of people who never imagined President Bush
would even utter the word `CAFE,'" said Daniel Becker, director of
the Sierra Club's global warming and energy program.
But the White House report was careful to spell out its goal of
boosting efficiency "without negatively impacting the U.S.
"To see that language in there lessened any anxiety on our part,"
said Greg Martin, a spokesman for General Motors in the company's
Washington, D.C., office.
On Capitol Hill, CAFE standards have been debated almost every
year since they were introduced, but there has never been enough
support to prompt any changes.
The issue is unusual in that it does not necessarily divide
members along party lines. This year, for instance, Sens. Dianne
Feinstein, D-Calif., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, are co-sponsors of
a bill that would close the SUV loophole. A similar measure in the
House also has bipartisan support.
There is entrenched opposition from Republicans who oppose
federal regulation, Democrats supported by auto unions and almost
any member from a state where oil is produced or cars manufactured.
Last year, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and other proponents
of reform gathered enough momentum to force a compromise. There
would be no immediate changes, but opponents agreed to the creation
of an independent National Academy of Sciences committee to study
the issue. That panel's report is due in July.