WASHINGTON A proposed huge increase in vehicle fuel economy, which prompted predictions that people would have to do without SUVs, is facing stiff opposition.
The proposal to raise automobile fuel efficiency by 50 percent, to an average of 36 mpg, has become so sensitive that some senators say it probably will be stripped from a broad energy bill.
This is a technology-driving amendment that will save Americans money at the gas pump, reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and reduce global warming.
The Senate scheduled a vote Wednesday on a less ambitious proposal that would require the government to order within two years that cars become more fuel efficient but would set no specific mileage requirement.
"We are going backward," said a frustrated Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., as the Senate engaged in an emotional debate over auto fuel economy most of Tuesday and into the evening.
Opponents of Kerry's proposal to reach the 36 mpg level by 2015 argued it would force automakers to make smaller cars, which would lead to more traffic deaths and threaten SUVs and minivans.
Kerry insisted: "No one in America will have to drive a smaller car" if the new requirements become law. "No one will take away your SUV."
He called the alternative proposal, offered by Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Christopher Bond, R-Mo., an "artful dodge, a great escape" from doing anything about fuel economy.
"The technology is available today to meet the higher standard," Kerry insisted, citing a National Academy of Sciences study last year that concluded significant fuel efficiency improvements are possible without reductions in car size and weight.
Levin said his approach would achieve efficiency gains without threatening the auto industry, workers' jobs and consumers' ability to choose their vehicles.
Several supporters of Kerry's proposal admitted late Tuesday that Levin and Bond likely have the votes to strip the 36 mpg requirement from the energy bill and replace it with their own proposal, supported by the auto industry.
"I'm not very hopeful," said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., a strong supporter of the Kerry proposal. "It's doubtful that we are going to pass any meaningful fuel economy standards as part of this energy bill."
The auto industry and the United Auto Workers have lobbied aggressively against the Kerry measure. The White House contended last week it would lead to thousands of additional traffic deaths as cars and other vehicles become smaller and lighter. Opponents have taken out ads criticizing "some senators" for threatening Americans' right to own a sport utility vehicle or minivan.
The theme dominated Tuesday's Senate debate.
"American women love their SUVs and minivans ... because of their safety," proclaimed Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., a co-sponsor of the less stringent proposal.
If Kerry's proposal became law "about the only way we could get there is to put everybody into glorified golf carts," added Bond.
Both sides repeatedly cited the National Academy of Sciences report that concluded that fuel economy improvements, including gains of as much as 42 percent on SUVs and minivans, are achievable without sacrificing size or horsepower, using technologies already available.
But the study also warned that without adequate lead time, automakers could be forced to resort to smaller, lighter vehicles, reducing safety. The scientists said that was the case in the late 1970s and 80s.
Kerry countered that the 13-year lead time in the legislation is plenty for automakers to comply using current and emerging technologies, including hybrid electric-gasoline vehicles now appearing in showrooms.
Supporters of the tougher measures argued it's impossible to address the broader issue of energy conservation without reducing gasoline consumption. Passenger vehicles use about 40 percent of all the oil used today, or nearly 8 million barrels a day.
While 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 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, account for nearly half of all vehicles sold.
© 2002 The Associated Press