A New Front in the Fuel Fight

Boosting efficiency is no longer a question of whether but how.

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A taxi driver fills up his cab with compressed natural gas.

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This fall, Republican pollster Bill McInturff was surprised to find one issue uniting every segment of the U.S. electorate, from solid Republicans focused on national security to Democratic global-thinking environmentalists. All put America's dependence on foreign oil at the top of the political agenda. "An issue essentially not on the radar screen two years ago now cuts across all different segments," McInturff says.

It's a finding in repeated polls, and it goes a long way toward explaining the relentless drive to force automakers for the first time in decades to engineer better gas mileage for their fleets. Although Congress and President Bush remain at odds over energy policy, both say they want to increase the corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, standard—to 35 miles per gallon by 2020 in the favored Capitol Hill proposal. Meanwhile, in a drama that may play out through President Bush's final days, as many as 17 states, led by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, have vowed to force carmakers to improve mileage even faster.

While battles continue, the carmakers themselves say that the atmosphere is altered and that they support higher standards, even as they work to shape the details in their favor. "Certainly, there have been changes with regard to the cost of gasoline, the political situation in the Middle East, and most importantly, control of Congress," says Charles Territo, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. It "was more of a question of how the standards would be increased, not whether they'd be increased."

A major player has been the Pew Charitable Trusts, which last spring committed an unprecedented $9.5 million to a 20-month fuel economy lobbying campaign. "We felt it was an ambitious goal, but we're not interested in tilting at windmills," says Joshua Reichert, managing director of the Pew Environment Group. "It seemed a confluence of factors had created a major opportunity—the rising energy prices, the newly elected Congress with the need to demonstrate they could get things done, the broad preoccupation with national security."

Pew did polling showing that Detroit's talking points rang hollow. CAFE would erode profits and force job cuts? That was happening already without any help from Congress. "We demonstrated that voters didn't think the industry's arguments had credibility, and members could feel safe, and voters would reward them, if they used language like our language," says Phyllis Cuttino, director of the Pew Campaign for Fuel Efficiency.

Pew ran radio and print ads in national venues and in 19 states, targeting districts of House members viewed as swing votes. "Every time you fill up at the gas pump, you get a little poorer, and the leaders of OPEC get richer," said one radio spot.

Voters speak. In October, Democratic pollster Mark Mellman completed a survey for Pew finding that a stunning 87 percent of Americans favored stricter CAFE standards and that voters' views on Congress would improve if this goal were achieved.

McInturff came up with similar findings in his work for Pew and for Ted Turner's United Nations Foundation with Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. "We have the confluence of gas fatigue and Iraq fatigue," says McInturff. "There's no question a majority of Americans think we have gone to war for oil and that it's a huge cause of our engagement in the Middle East. Combine that with $3-a-gallon gasoline."

A group of corporate executives and retired military commanders, the Securing America's Future Energy coalition, played a crucial role in President Bush's call, in his State of the Union address, for a 20 percent cut in gasoline use in 10 years and a policy initiative for CAFE standards to increase by 4 percent per year.

But even more significant than the CAFE effort may be California's drive to force automakers to reduce tailpipe greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2016. Territo, the auto industry spokesman, says the California goal is "substantially more aggressive" than Congress's, amounting to a more than 35-mpg mandate by 2016.