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Senators Pan Bush Administration Fuel Economy Efforts

Senators on a key committee today strongly criticized the Bush administration’s legislative proposal to increase fuel economy standards for vehicles, a sign that the panel may try to move bipartisan legislation opposed by automakers that lets Congress dictate the standards.

Nicole Nason, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, appeared before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee this morning to support the administration’s legislative proposal, which would authorize NHTSA to reform the Corporate Average Fuel Economy program and develop new standards for passenger cars, which haven’t been updated since 1990.

“We believe that having experts develop the standard, using sound science and hard data, in an open and reviewable rulemaking process is the most responsible way to determine a new CAFE standard,” Nason told the panel.

But Nason’s testimony was greeted skeptically by Senators. Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) blasted the administration’s fuel economy efforts, telling Nason, “for those who want to do nothing for fuel economy, you’re the perfect spokesman.”

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) noted that in the past he had been willing to defer to NHTSA experts on setting CAFE standards, but “I’m not going to do that anymore. … The only way we are going to get there is to force the issue.”

Numerous Commerce Committee members, including Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), are co-sponsoring CAFE legislation authored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). The bill, S.357, would raise average fuel economy standards for all vehicles from 25 miles per gallon to 35 mpg by 2019.

Former Commerce Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) is sponsoring a rival proposal, S. 183, that would raise the standards to 40 mpg by 2017, but only for passenger cars. The Senator, a longtime advocate of drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, wants to lessen the nation’s dependence on foreign oil by increasing fuel standards and expanding production in his home state.

But legislative proposals dictating numerical CAFE standards are sure to face opposition from automakers, who argue that experts within the Department of Transportation and NHTSA are better equipped to determine fuel economy limits.

“Rather than having Congress try to pick an arbitrary rate of increase for CAFE standards, we believe that the regulatory process at the Department of Transportation should be used,” testified Elizabeth Lowery of General Motors Corp. “That way, the agency can collect and review confidential and proprietary company product plans and consider the opportunities to increase the fuel economy levels consistent with consumer needs and choices, competitive implications, vehicle and highway safety and the impact on U.S. jobs.”

NHTSA’s Nason said the Senators’ proposals would leave the agency “hemmed in by specifics.”

But David Friedman of the Union of Concerned Scientists said that enough data is available for Senators to determine feasible fuel economy standards without NHTSA’s help.

“NHTSA has proven to have a poor track record when setting fuel economy standards,” he testified.

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