Gas Pains

Democratic leadership in the House is tanking when it comes to automobile fuel efficiency

click to enlarge MIXED MESSAGES: Auto manufacturers hold P.R. stunts like this "Green People" alt-fuels event in the capital in 2006 to appear more environmentally friendly while lobbying hard against stringent new fuel-efficiency goals in the Markey-Platts legislation now in Congress. - (prnewsfoto/alliance Of Automobile Mfc., Randy Santos)
(prnewsfoto/alliance Of Automobile Mfc., Randy Santos)
MIXED MESSAGES: Auto manufacturers hold P.R. stunts like this "Green People" alt-fuels event in the capital in 2006 to appear more environmentally friendly while lobbying hard against stringent new fuel-efficiency goals in the Markey-Platts legislation now in Congress.

Anyone looking for an example of just how business-as-usual Congress is despite a changeover in party leadership in 2006 needs look no further than the current fight over fuel efficiency standards for automobiles.

The Democrat-controlled Senate has already voted to require a substantial increase in fuel efficiency, a 10 mpg increase to an average of 35 miles per gallon by 2020, the most substantial change in the three decades since the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards were adopted.

Republican governors such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Charlie Crist support stricter auto-fuel levels and lower emissions.

Even President Bush in his State of the Union speech this year called for a 4 percent increase in fuel efficiency annually as a way of weaning the United States off its dependency on foreign oil and fighting the War on Terror.

Then why is the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives seriously considering legislation that would water down those fuel-efficiency targets?

The answer can be traced to money and influence — as personified by Democratic Congressman John Dingell. He is the chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee considering the CAFE legislation. He is from Michigan. The home of Detroit. The epicenter of America's foundering auto industry.

Last week, Dingell publicly threw his support behind legislation known as Hill-Terry, an auto industry-supported bill that dilutes the Senate's efforts to achieve fuel efficiency. Reps. Baron Hill and Lee Terry propose to give carmakers more time (until 2022) to hit a lower target (at least 32 mpg). It would also prohibit the federal government from setting that standard any higher than 35 mpg, even if technological changes between now and then make that an easy goal.

Perhaps the worst pill in Hill-Terry is a provision that would stop individual states from setting tougher emissions and fuel standards than the federal government, as has been done in California and 11 other states.

That hasn't stopped Dingell from pimping the bill.

"Representatives Hill and Terry have introduced H.R. 2927, which would aggressively reduce the use of fuel and emissions of carbon dioxide without hurting American jobs," Dingell said in a written statement released Wednesday. He used the occasion to announce he was putting off a vote on the CAFE standards until the fall.

Consumer advocates and environmentalists are backing a more fuel-efficient alternative, known as Markey-Platts for its two main sponsors, Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Todd Russell Platts of Pennsylvania (a Democrat and Republican, respectively). It would require the U.S. fleet to achieve at least 27.5 mpg by 2012 and 35 mpg by the year 2018. It also allows states to set their own higher standards.

In Florida, Markey-Platts would save a car owner an estimated $1,000-$1,500 over the life of a vehicle because of the better fuel economy, totaling $18 billion statewide if gasoline stays at $3 a gallon. Those savings injected back into the state's economy could generate 14,000 new jobs.

"The alternative being pushed by the auto industry [Hill-Terry] simply does not achieve these levels of saving," says Mark Cooper, director of research for the Consumer Federation of America. "They would leave the vehicle fleet way behind where the science is. We can get to 35 mpg without compromising the size or safety of the vehicles."

He's talking about Big Auto's constant saw about fuel efficiency: that higher mpg's will result in more traffic fatalities because vehicles will be smaller and lighter.

But driving the effort to water down Markey-Platts are two other contentions: that it will raise the price of U.S.-made cars and light trucks, and that it will cost tens of thousands of union jobs. The automobile industry has put up its pro-Hill-Terry website, and the UAW is urging all of its members to contact their representatives to support the lower goals.

"The opposition [to Markey-Platts] is ramping up, and they're giving this a full-scale attack," said Martha Collins, the Florida organizers for the National Environmental Trust.

In the Tampa Bay-Sarasota region, the congressional delegation is split. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat, and C.W. Bill Young, a Pinellas Republican, are listed as co-sponsors on Markey-Platts. Sarasota Republican Vern Buchanan is a co-sponsor of Hill-Terry. And Lakeland Republican Adam Putnam has thrown in with a third alternative being sponsored by, among others, former Speaker Dennis Hastert and Joe Barton of Texas, both oil PAC favorites. Their legislation, too, would push for lesser gains in fuel efficiency and allow higher emissions than Markey-Platts. Inquiries to Gus Bilirakis' and Ginnie Browne-Waite's offices about their stances went unanswered.

There is a lot at stake for Floridians, who use the third-most gasoline of any state in the nation while ranking fourth in population. Florida's gasoline consumption has risen at twice the national average, according to the Florida Consumer Action Network and the Consumer Federation of America.

Another benefit, says Markey-Platts supporter and former Congressman Tom Evans, is that higher CAFE standards could save environmentally sensitive areas such as the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge and the west coast of Florida from seeing oil derricks any time soon.

Despite Dingell's early hold on the bill, there is a glimmer of hope for the tougher standards. Congressional Quarterly, in a story published online two weeks ago, said "the industry expects that Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., will roll over Dingell on CAFE standards once the energy legislation starts moving."

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