Tougher fuel standards? Not anytime soon

A U.S. Senate vote dooms efforts to mandate better gas mileage in American-made vehicles.

Topics: Energy, John McCain, R-Ariz., Carl Levin, D-Mich., John F. Kerry, D-Mass.,

As the fight over a comprehensive energy policy continues, environmentalists suffered a big loss Wednesday when the Senate rejected a proposal to increase fuel efficiency standards on cars and trucks.

The Senate rejected a measure by Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz., that would have raised the fuel efficiency of American cars and trucks as much as 50 percent by 2015. Instead, it adopted an amendment by Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, a champion of the auto industry in Washington, and Missouri Republican Kit Bond. The Levin-Bond amendment essentially takes a wait-and-see approach, leaving any future decision on fuel economy standards, known as CAFE standards, to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Auto industry lobbyists have long argued that raising the fuel efficiency standards would cost jobs and force compromises on car and truck safety. Their lobbying effort has been so effective that, until recently, the department had been barred by Congress from even studying fuel economy standards. The Levin-Bond proposal gives the department 15 to 24 months to suggest changes to the current standards. But environmental groups were not optimistic about the prospects for change.

“The administration’s close ties to the auto industry, including Chief of Staff Andrew Card’s previous position as chief lobbyist for General Motors, are further indications that [the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] will do little to increase CAFE standards,” said Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope in a statement Wednesday.

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The vote did not break along clear partisan lines. Many moderate Democrats supported the Levin amendment, while some more liberal Republicans supported the tougher standards endorsed by Kerry. The Levin amendment passed on a 62-38 vote, including votes from 19 Democrats.

“Today’s Senate vote was a timid step toward improved efficiency at a time when we need bold progress,” said Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, one of six Republicans to support the Kerry-McCain proposal, in a statement Wednesday. “I fear this is a missed opportunity.”

But Levin said his approach was a more common-sense approach that would save jobs, and eventually, help the environment. “We all share the important goals of improving fuel economy in cars and protecting our environment, and our bill will achieve these results without costing countless U.S. jobs,” Levin said. “Other proposals that have been offered in the Senate could force U.S. auto manufacturers to cut back on their SUV and light truck business but would enable foreign manufacturers to increase their output of these vehicles, which would simply replace American-made products with foreign-made vehicles.”

But Sierra Club spokesman David Willet said the kind of protectionism espoused by Levin will not save U.S. automakers forever. “We’re already concerned with the Japanese ability to outperform the U.S. automakers because they’re going to meet these standards before they’re law,” he said. “Eventually, we’re going to have higher standards, and the U.S. will have to play catch-up. But if we do it now, the law would give the U.S. a chance to catch up. The [Kerry-McCain] amendment still gives them 15 years. This idea that all of a sudden the U.S. companies wouldn’t be able to compete just isn’t true.”

Kerry, a potential Democratic challenger to George Bush in 2004, has kept his name in the headlines throughout the energy fight. While the current energy policy debate is helping Kerry establish his enviro cred nationwide, he sounded a familiar political note after Wednesday’s defeat.

“The big money and the special interests prevailed in their fight to stop us from increasing fuel efficiency and doing it in a way that makes sense for our workers, our consumers and our environment,” Kerry said. He accused the industry of launching a smear campaign against himself and McCain, “aimed at buying stalemate and inaction … Few industries can match the auto companies when it comes to fighting to kill even modest energy, consumer, environmental and safety protections. But let me tell you, anyone who knows John McCain and I knows that we’re not about to surrender to the power of special interest pressure.”

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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