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House Committee Endorses New Way of Establishing Fuel Economy Standards Congressional Quarterly

A House committee approved legislation on May 10 that would grant the Bush administration the authority it seeks to set new corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards for passenger cars and open the door to basing efficiency targets on a car’s size and weight.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee voted 28-26 along party lines in favor of the draft bill, which is in line with changes proposed by the White House.

The legislation would fundamentally change the way vehicle economy standards are set. Currently, automakers must meet an overall average miles-per-gallon target for the entire fleet of passenger cars. But in March, the administration increased fuel economy standards for light trucks and sport utility vehicles based on the size or “footprint” of different vehicle types.

Now regulators are seeking similar authority on passenger cars.

The proposal to overhaul the fuel economy standards was among the initiatives the White House advanced in response to the recent jump in gasoline prices. Chairman Joe L. Barton (R-Texas) acknowledged that when it comes to taming gas prices, tinkering with the fuel economy standards “is not the only answer.”

“But saying no and doing nothing is not an answer at all,” he added.

Earlier in the day, Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta sent House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) draft legislation with additional proposals for how the administration would like to set fuel economy standards.

“I am concerned how this administration and subsequent administrations might use this broad and ambiguous authority,” said the committee’s ranking Democrat, John D. Dingell of Michigan, a longtime opponent of stricter CAFE mandates.

Committee Democrats complained that the administration’s plan actually might eliminate the current incentive to make smaller vehicles. “This could actually degrade the fuel efficiency of the vehicle fleet,” said Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.).

The panel approved the legislation after rejecting, 36-17, an amendment by Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) that would have mandated an increase in CAFE standards to 33 miles per gallon for cars made starting in 2015. The current standard requires a carmaker to ensure that its fleet of passenger cars averages no less than 27.5 mpg.

Mineta said at a May 9 hearing that the administration “will not accept an arbitrary statutory increase” such as Markey’s plan.

The administration claims that boosting the fleetwide average target, rather than setting different standards for various classes of vehicles, would force automakers to build smaller, more dangerous cars. Critics of the administration approach say the point of CAFE standards should be to encourage the manufacture of fuel-efficient fleets.

The committee did adopt, 27-23, an amendment by Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) that would require a study of whether to keep forcing automakers to separate domestic- and foreign-made fleets for CAFE purposes.

A Barton amendment to limit the administration’s review in revising CAFE standards to vehicle attributes related to fuel economy was adopted by voice vote.

Kevin Madden, a spokesman for House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said the measure could go to the House floor “as early as next week.”

Meanwhile, Hastert said on May 10 he would oppose efforts to lift the 54-cent-per-gallon tariff on imported ethanol motor fuel to ease supply shortages in some regions.

“I don’t see an economic plus in it right now," said Hastert, whose state is home to Archer Daniels Midland Co., the largest domestic producer of corn-based ethanol.

Hastert’s stance puts him at odds with Boehner, Barton and Bush, all of whom back at least a temporary tariff rollback. The biggest foreign producer is Brazil, which makes ethanol from sugar cane.

On May 9, Secretary Mineta told a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee that boosting the fleetwide average target, rather than setting different standards for various classes of vehicle, would force automakers to build more smaller cars.

Meanwhile, Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) have said that they will introduce legislation to let the Transportation Department set separate standards for different vehicle classes as long as each manufacturer met a fleetwide average of 35 miles a gallon by 2016, including sport-utility vehicles. Carmakers who could not meet the target could buy credits from manufacturers who exceed them.

A group of Republican senators, led by Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.) also has proposed a bill to require the Transportation Department to boost CAFE standards.

Editor’s Note: It is expected that the House will take up CAFE legislation on May 17.