The CAFE Klatch on the Hill
Congress may finally want to boost mileage standards
Conflict in the Middle East has gas prices soaring. Motorists are howling. And policymakers are demanding that Detroit make cars that burn less gasoline. Headlines from last week? No, it was actually 1975. That was the year Congress passed legislation giving automakers a decade to boost mileage standards for cars from 13 to 18 mpg to about 27.5 mpg.
It took automakers until 1989 to actually hit those benchmarks; since then, nothing more has been done to raise efficiency again. Fierce opposition from Michigan legislators has stifled attempts to enact further mileage improvements. But now suddenly Congress is gunning for change. Some of the reasons-like gas prices and Middle East strife-sound familiar, but the prospect of global warming is also causing both political parties to turn up the heat on Detroit.
The last congressional attempt to change the standards, known as Corporate Average Fuel Economyor CAFEwas in 1990, and the disputes back then resonate today. Light trucks escaped CAFE standards because they were mostly work vehicles. Since then, car makers have profited by developing SUVs as family vehiclesbut SUVs have also been categorized as light trucks, meaning they avoid CAFE standards. When Congress tried to bring light trucks into CAFE in 1990, Michigan senators filibustered. The SUV "light truck" categorization has endured, enraging environmentalists; they say overall fuel economy has flat-lined. SUVs, regulated by the Department of Transportation, get an average of 20.7 miles per gallon.
But today's politics are "more likely to create changes in CAFE than anything we've seen in a long time," says Phil Sharp of Resources for the Future, a think tank. Indeed, there are bipartisan proposals working their way through both the Senate and the House that would gradually ratchet up overall CAFE standards to 35 mpg. In this year's State of the Union address, President Bush called for 4 percent per year CAFE increases in both light trucks and cars beginning in model year 2010. Legislators believe new technology makes the goals attainable, but automakers are dubious. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers says it supports "feasible" CAFE reform, but won't elaborate. Automakers would prefer that the Department of Transportation set the levels; new standards will almost certainly be based on vehicle size, rather than a fleetwide average, which will make it easier to bring SUVs into the fold. Nevertheless, the alliance has launched radio ads warning consumers that proposed legislation will "jack up prices" and make it harder to find safe, big vehicles.
The Senate bill is already spurring a brawl over possible exceptions to proposed standards. In the House debate, the key figure is Democrat John Dingell of Michigan; he's the automakers' closest ally in the House and is also chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, which shares jurisdiction over the issue. He has promised that all industries will be treated equally as he crafts a wider bill to curb greenhouse gases nationwide. Others in the House want to maneuver around Dingell by attaching CAFE reform to an energy package likely to be debated this summer. After seeming open to CAFE reforms earlier this year, Dingell last month referred to the issue as a "stale and sterile debate." But stale, sterile, or overdue, that debate is about to heat up.
This story appears in the June 11, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.