- 3/13/2002 -
Debate on fuel economy standards opens, pitting conservationists 
against soccer moms

Wednesday, March 13, 2002

By H. Josef Hebert, Associated Press

WASHINGTON - One side sees improved auto fuel economy as key to the 
nation's energy security. The other side predicts an end to 
affordable and safe SUVs, minivans, and pickup trucks.

The debate over how best to cut the amount of gasoline consumed on 
U.S. highways took on an emotionally charged tone Tuesday, as the 
Senate began considering a 50 percent boost in auto fuel efficiency.

Critics of the proposal argue the mileage requirements, which would 
be phased in over 13 years, can't be met without making cars smaller, 
lighter, and less safe and limiting consumers' choices on the kinds 
of vehicles they are able to buy. They offered an alternative that 
would require the Transportation Department to increase auto fuel 
efficiency within two years but set no specific standard.

This would do nothing to improve fuel efficiency, said senators 
seeking the 50 percent increase.

"American women love their SUVs and minivans ... because of their 
safety," proclaimed Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who warned that the 
wrath of "soccer moms" would be heard if the Senate approved the 
tougher standards. Another senator said motorists would end up "in 
glorified golf carts."

John Kerry, D-Mass., sponsor of the fuel economy measure, called such 
predictions "Alice in Wonderland comments" that ignore that "we are 
going backward" in reducing the amount of fuel used by motorists. 
"It's a scare tactic on soccer moms," complained Kerry.

Kerry wants automakers to increase the average mileage of their new 
fleets to 36 miles per gallon by 2015, about 50 percent from current 
federal standards. He insists they have the technology to do it 
without making vehicles smaller or less safe or sacrificing the 
popular SUVs and minivans.

Nonsense, argue his critics. In an opening salvo Tuesday, they 
enlisted the fear of retribution from "soccer moms" and "pickup 
pops," who they maintain, would no longer be able to buy the vehicles 
they love. And, they argued, it would mean lost auto industry jobs as 
U.S. manufacturers find it harder to compete with foreign producers.

Supporters of the new measures argued that it's impossible to address 
the broader issue of energy conservation without dramatically 
reducing the amount of fuel guzzled on America's highways. Passenger 
vehicles account for 40 percent of all the oil used today, they said.

While auto fuel efficiency increased dramatically in the late 1970s 
and early '80s, there has been no progress since 1988, when the motor 
fleet reached a peak of just under 26 mpg. The average for all 
vehicles was 24 mpg in 2000, about what it was 22 years ago.

The primary reason has been the huge popularity of sport utility 
vehicles (SUVs) and minivans, which are subject to less stringent 
fuel economy requirements and average about 20 mpg, as opposed to 28 
mpg for passenger cars, according to the Environmental Protection 
Agency. These vehicles, along with pickups, now account for nearly 
half of all vehicles sold.

The proposal crafted by Kerry and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., would 
close the gap between cars and SUVs in addition to boosting overall 
mileage of vehicle fleets. In an attempt to garner additional 
support, Kerry said he is considering exempting larger pickups. "No 
one in America will have to drive a smaller car," insisted Kerry. 
"The technology is available today to meet the higher standard."

Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., said larger vehicles would be 
sacrificed. "About the only way we could get there is to put 
everybody into glorified golf carts," said Bond. "You'd have families 
picking up their kids in subcompacts." Bond and Sen. Carl Levin, 
D-Mich., offered a more industry-friendly proposal that would require 
the Transportation Department to increase fuel economy requirements 
but would set no specific standard. It requires the agency to 
consider safety, job losses, industry competition, and energy 
conservation in crafting a new rule.

As the Senate debate unfolded Tuesday, both sides cited a study last 
year on fuel economy by the National Academy of Sciences.

Kerry said the study concluded that significant fuel economy gains 
can be made using current technology over the next 10 to 15 years 
without making vehicles smaller or sacrificing performance. The 
report also said the costs of these improvements can be recouped 
through fuel savings.

Levin noted that the scientists refused to recommend a specific fuel 
economy standard and acknowledged that past increases in fuel economy 
led to smaller, lighter cars and thousands of additional traffic 

Copyright 2002, Associated Press
All Rights Reserved

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