April 28, 2006

Plan would allow US to boost auto mileage standards

By John Crawley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A proposal in Congress would give
the Bush administration authority it seeks to amend fuel
economy standards for compacts, sedans and other passenger cars
to cut oil consumption, officials said on Friday.

The legislation being drafted by the House Energy and
Commerce Committee does not mandate specific mileage targets.
Any changes also would not likely take effect for at least two
years in order to give auto companies -- especially big U.S.
manufacturers struggling financially -- time to absorb a new

A hearing on the plan is scheduled for May 3 and one
congressional aide called the proposal a starting point for

Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, a crucial voice on
reforming fuel economy regulations as chairman of the Senate
Commerce Committee, also said he supported changing the
Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard as proposed by
President George W. Bush on Thursday.

And Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, a New York Republican and
chairman of the House Science Committee, said he planned to
propose an amendment to energy legislation that would boost
fuel economy. His office said details were under discussion.

In March, the Bush administration approved a 1.9 mpg
increase in the standards for sport utilities, minivans and
pickups -- all in the light truck class that includes big gas
guzzlers -- to 24.1 mpg between 2008 and 2011. It also rewrote
the rules for calculating how far light trucks must go on a
gallon of gasoline.

But transportation planners have long resisted changing
targets for sedans and other passenger cars, wary of increasing
industry costs, especially with domestic auto giants Ford Motor
Co. and General Motors Corp. in financial trouble.

The passenger car standard has remained the same since

Now under severe political pressure from soaring gasoline
prices that have topped $3 in many markets, the administration
has changed its mind on cars.

Prompted by Bush, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta
formally asked House and Senate leaders on Thursday for
authority to overhaul the mileage goal for that class of
vehicle as well as the method for calculating it.

Currently each manufacturers' fleet of passenger cars must
average 27.5 miles per gallon. But many vehicles, including
those made by U.S. manufacturers not known for fuel-saving
models, exceed the current standard.

Consumer and environmental groups were mixed on the
administration's about-face.

The Union of Concerned Scientists said changing the way
fuel savings are calculated -- as was done with the light truck
class -- could create loopholes for manufacturers to produce
bigger, less efficient cars.

"If Congress is going to grant the president authority to
revamp car fuel economy targets, (lawmakers) must also include
a requirement that an oil savings guarantee be attached to any
changes," the group said in a statement.

Joan Claybrook, president of consumer group Public Citizen
and the nation's top auto regulator in the early years of the
CAFE law, said significant savings could be achieved quickly by
reducing engine weight.

Automakers said they would work with the administration on
any proposed changes.