Opinion

Raise fuel standards

At long last, Congress appears ready to raise auto fuel economy standards. And, once again, top auto executives are opposing that effort.

Democratic leaders in both the Senate and House hope to pass broad energy legislation before the Fourth of July congressional recess, hoping to quell voter anger about high gasoline prices. Although proposed legislation would have almost no immediate effect on gas prices, there are many other good reasons for setting higher fuel economy standards for the first time in nearly 20 years.

The Senate bill asks automakers to boost their fuel economy to a fleet average of 35 miles per gallon by 2020. That represents about a 40 percent increase over standards that new cars, light trucks and SUVs must meet today. The auto standard of 27.5 mpg was last increased 18 years ago, while SUVs and small trucks now are required to meet a fleet average of 22.2 mpg.

Auto manufacturers object to the new standards, saying they will be too hard to meet, that they would sacrifice safety by making vehicles lighter, and that consumers don't really want smaller, fuel-efficient cars. Auto execs have indicated, however, that they might be willing to accept a compromise proposal by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., which would raise standards to 36 mpg for cars by 2022 and 30 mpg for trucks by 2025.

While supporters of the more stringent bill insist that numerous studies show manufacturers could meet the higher standards, either bill would be a significant improvement over the status quo. Any increase in fuel efficiency would reduce reliance on foreign oil and decrease the carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming.

The Detroit executives who oppose efforts to increase fuel efficiency now are the same ones who resisted adding safety features to vehicles a decade ago, claiming the public wouldn't pay for safer cars. Ultimately, they were forced to play catch-up as the demand for safer cars skyrocketed.

We suspect the public is ahead of the automakers on the issue of fuel efficiency as well. Consumers are concerned not only about saving money at the gas pump but also about global warming, clean air and the dependence on oil from nations that may not always have the best interests of the United States at heart.

The Senate bill also would mandate the use of 36 billion gallons a year of renewable fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel in cars and trucks by 2022, up from 8.6 billion gallons now. Initially that would spur production of ethanol from corn, but eventually could increase production from other sources such as grasses and wood chips.

These measures alone are not the answer to either global warming or rising fuel costs. The alternative fuel industry still is in its infancy, and Americans still are reluctant to drive less to save gasoline.

Nonetheless, it is apparent that Detroit is not going to produce more fuel efficient vehicles on its own. It has had 20 years to do that, and, on average, cars today are less efficient than they were in 1987.

Other nations, including Japan, China and all of Europe, already have stricter standards than U.S. automakers would be expected to meet in a decade. In short, there is no excuse for delaying the enactment of higher fuel standards, which should have happened years ago.

IN SUMMARY

Congress needs to raise the average fuel standards for fleets of cars and light trucks.

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