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Air Date: Week of

The waves rippling out from New Orleans could mean another look at vehicle mileage standards. Following Hurricane Katrina, some new senators and lobby groups are saying it's time cars and trucks got better mileage. Living on Earth's Ingrid Lobet reports.


CURWOOD: There’s a new theme in the auto showroom these days: gas mileage.
Even light trucks and SUVs are being pitched with such lines as “the best fuel economy in its class.” It’s not just the car industry that’s touting fuel conservation. With the Hurricane Katrina gas price shock, gridlock around better mileage may be breaking on Capitol Hill, as well. Living on Earth's Ingrid Lobet reports.

LOBET: Just over a month ago, Congress concluded a years-long effort, setting the country's energy direction. It opted mainly to encourage more oil and gas production and not to force automakers to produce more fuel-efficient cars and trucks. After that energy bill was signed, the Bush administration veered gently toward conservation, with a plan to require light trucks and SUVs to get better mileage. Then came Hurricane Katrina. Representatives Edward Markey and Sherwood Boehlert saw an opening and reintroduced a fuel efficiency bill that's been slowly gaining support for four years.

BOEHLERT:: It would raise federal fuel efficiency or CAFE standards for cars and trucks from today's average of 25 miles per gallon, to at least 33 miles per gallon over the next 10 years.

LOBET: Members of Congress are hearing from constituents angry about fuel prices. Senator Pete Domenici is chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

DOMENICI: I believe we must take another look at CAFE standards. We looked at ‘em and they were an impossibility because of the politics of it. I’m not sure that will be the case after Katrina

LOBET: "CAFE" is short for corporate average fuel economy. Each carmaker, like GM and DaimlerChrysler, averages the fuel efficiency of all the cars it sells. For SUVs and light trucks, it must be no less than 21 miles per gallon and for cars--no less than 27.5. Senator Domenici's opinion rings loud because he used to oppose stricter mileage mandates.

And there are other new voices joining the miles per gallon chorus. AAA, the 48 million member consumer organization, has often opposed pollution control measures, and laws that would force change on carmakers. But CEO Robert Darbelnet says its time to increase vehicle mileage.

DARBELNET:: We clearly need more fuel efficient vehicles if we are going to be less reliant on what is a limited quantity of refined gasoline, and one of the ways of doing that is encouraging manufacturers to make more fuel efficient vehicles.

LOBET: AAA wants the very heaviest passenger vehicles regulated. Vehicles in this class, like Hummers, currently violate no standard if they get 10 miles to the gallon. So, what are the chances that Congress will pass stricter fuel economy standards? David Jenkins of the group Republicans for Environmental Protection says it often depends on the lawmakers from prime car country--Michigan.

JENKINS: The Democrats are lobbied by the labor unions that represent the automobile industry and the Republicans are lobbied by the automobile industry themselves.

LOBET: A change in mileage standards could also depend on what happens with offshore drilling. There’s increased pressure for drilling right now, but it’s currently banned except off the Gulf Coast. Senator Domenici and others suggest there might be a tradeoff—higher fuel performance in exchange for the chance of drilling miles offshore New Jersey, California and Florida.

For Living on Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet



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