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Fuel Economy Has Backers; Details to Come

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

We heard some of that focus on fuel efficiency in President Bush's State of the Union address. He called for new rules to make cars and trucks go much farther on a gallon of gas. Attempts to raise fuel efficiency standards have been stymied for decades.

Now, as NPR's Kathleen Schalch reports, the debate isn't over whether to make cars and trucks get better gas mileage. It's over how to do it.

KATHLEEN SCHALCH: President Bush wants improved fuel economy to save up to eight and a half billion gallons of gasoline annually by the year 2017. David Friedman, a frequent critic of the administration's energy policy, is impressed.

Mr. DAVID FRIEDMAN (Union of Concerned Scientists): If you're going to get 8.5 billion gallons of gasoline saved, you need to raise fuel economy standards to 34 miles per gallon by that time.

SCHALCH: In other words, a decade from now, cars and trucks would have to go an average of 10 miles farter on a gallon of gas than they do today.

Friedman, a clean vehicles expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists, says that's pretty dramatic when you consider the lack of progress until now. On average, Friedman says, vehicles sold today actually get worse gas mileage than they did two decades ago.

Mr. FRIEDMAN: It could be a breakthrough if this ends up in law. I think with so much momentum with the fact that the president now agrees with leaders in Congress on how far we need to raise these standards. It's time for them to stop debating and get this done.

SCHALCH: Key lawmakers plan to introduce bills to raise gas mileage by 4 percent per year. That's the president's goal, too. But they disagree over how to get there says Richard Newell. He's an energy economist with Duke University and Resources for the Future.

Mr. RICHARD NEWELL (Duke University): The administration has not supported the idea that Congress would write a number into legislation, and so I believe it will continue to not support that idea.

SCHALCH: Instead, President Bush wants the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to decide how much to boost fuel economy and then write a rule. NTSA administrator Nicole Nathan.

Ms. NICOLE NATHAN (National Traffic Safety Administration): It would be a very aggressive rule making, but we are also asking for the authority to make sure that we are doing the rule making based on a cost benefit analysis using sound science and without impacting safety, for example, and that is why we prefer to have the authority to do the rule making process ourselves.

SCHALCH: The new rule for passenger cars would be quite different from the existing one. That rule focuses on fleet averages. The cars each company sells must average at least 27.5 miles per gallon. Detroit's Big Three complain that's unfair because their cars are bigger on average than their competitors, so it's harder to make them fuel efficient. The proposed rule would set different fuel economy standards based on the size of each vehicle.

But this approach unnerved some lawmakers, including Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey. He called it faith-based rule making.

Representative ED MARKEY (Democrat, Massachusetts): The plan has no guarantee that in fact the Department of Transportation will increase in any meaningful way the fuel economy standards of the American automotive fleet.

SCHALCH: Markey also worries that leaving it to the federal bureaucracy would take too long. He says the technology needed to raise fuel economy is available now. But Honda Motors manager John German told lawmakers this week most carmakers and consumers haven't made this a priority.

Mr. JOHN GERMAN (Manager, Honda Motors): Since 1987, technology's gone into the fleet at a rate that could have improved fuel economy by almost 1.5 percent per year if it had not gone to other attributes valued more highly by consumers, such as performance, luxury, utility and safety.

SCHALCH: Rising oil prices and worries about global warming have fueled a new bipartisan sense of urgency. Lawmakers who once advocated leaving fuel economy to the market to decide are changing their minds. The question is whether the president and Congress will find a way to compromise.

Kathleen Schalch, NPR News. Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kathleen Schalch
Kathleen Schalch is a general assignment reporter on NPR's national desk. Her coverage can be heard on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.
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