WASHINGTON - In a political turnabout, the automobile industry is embracing legislation that would raise fuel-economy standards for U.S. vehicles more than 25 percent over the next 15 years.
After years of resisting any increase, fears of more stringent measures that would require the industry to comply with even higher standards have forced General Motors, Ford, Toyota, and others to make this strategic maneuver, analysts are saying.
As concerns about climate change, energy independence, and gas prices have grown among voters, and lawmakers face increasing pressure to respond, the auto industry is now backing legislation sponsored by Democratic Representative Baron Hill of Indiana and his Republican colleague Lee Terry, from Nebraska.
The Hill-Terry bill would require each company to ensure its fleet of cars averages at least 35 miles per gallon by 2022, up from the current requirement of 27.5 miles per gallon. The standards for so-called "light trucks," which include minivans and sport utility vehicles, would increase from 21.6 to 32 miles per gallon.
Congress has considered raising the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards three times since 1990, but automakers have successfully fought off each attempt.
Meanwhile, an environmental rights group has condemned the United States' largest car makers for taking "few real steps to meaningfully reduce carbon emissions," which are a primary driver of climate change.
Instead, Ford and GM, whose vehicles combine to account for 56 percent of carbon emissions from U.S. cars, are actively promoting the increased use of corn-based ethanol to combat global warming and provide energy security, says Co-Op America, which argues that raising fuel-economy standards should be a much higher priority.
Although it has been found that using corn ethanol can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, research has shown that its overall impact is limited, and can even be detrimental to the environment.
According to a new study from a pair of non-profit groups and the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School, ethanol can actually increase global warming pollutants. When fossil fuels are used to power ethanol refineries, the end result can be more global warming pollution than would be generated by the "dirty fuels" ethanol replaces, the report says.
Additionally, the production of ethanol can require vast amounts of energy, water, and land, taking a significant toll on the environment, experts say.
Increasing minimum mile-per-gallon standards is a "robust tool" that should be used to reduce emissions and gasoline demand, according to the New York-based Network for New Energy Choices, which co-produced the report.
Co-Op America's Alisa Gravitz agrees. "Anyone can see by looking at the characteristics of the different biofuels that corn ethanol isn't 'green.'"
Gravitz's group is leading a consumer-advocacy campaign to encourage Ford and GM to stop promoting corn-based ethanol and focus instead on "real solutions to the climate and energy crises."
"You don't have to crunch numbers very long to conclude that ethanol isn't a fuel solution for people or the planet," Gravitz argues. "As a country, we should be moving towards driving less, improving fuel economy, and advancing plug-in hybrids powered by electricity from renewable, green sources."
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