By The Hill Staff - 03/16/05 12:00 AM EST
Congressional staffers received cleaning sponges last week, compliments of an auto industry trying to polish its image.
The sponges carried the same message as earlier newspaper advertisements (in such places as The Hill) and radio spots: Cars are 99 percent cleaner than they used to be.
Some senators want automobiles to be cleaner still, through tougher average-mileage standards attached to a comprehensive energy bill. That position appeared to receive a boost last week when Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) suggested a greater willingness to cut demand for oil by requiring cars to go farther on a tank of gas.
Domenici said he would “be delighted to include a viable” corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, provision in the energy bill.
With a possible Senate debate looming on boosting energy supplies by opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to drilling, some lobbyists see a potential tradeoff.
“ANWR is happening. That’s the supply side. Republicans may be saying, ‘Now let’s do something more on the demand side,’” said one utility lobbyist who supports the energy bill but doesn’t have a stake in whether it increases average fuel-economy standards.
Marnie Funk, a spokeswoman for the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said that many of the amendments that Democrats threatened to offer in the last Congress if a Republican-crafted energy bill returned to the floor focused on conservation.
While Domenici felt his bill was balanced, Funk added, “Absolutely, we are open to doing more.”
Bill Wicker, spokesman for committee Democrats, said his side was still waiting to hear what “viable” means to Republicans.
The auto industry — which says an overly aggressive CAFE boost would force layoffs — is revving up for the debate. It has done so by noting, through sponges and advertisements, that cars are already much cleaner than they were three decades ago.
But upping the fuel standard could be “very difficult to achieve,” said Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents domestic and foreign car manufacturers.
Carmakers say they are at the mercy of their market because CAFE averages fuel efficiencies of cars on the road and not the cars that are made.
“It’s not what we manufacture; it’s what consumers buy,” Bergquist said.
Consumers have increasingly favored larger vehicles, such as SUVs, which fall under the less stringent light-truck CAFE standards.
Carmakers want CAFE changes to be handled by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, which can review the difficult technicalities of changing CAFE over a period of months, rather than by Congress, Bergquist said.
The current automobile CAFE — 27.5 miles per gallon — has been the standard since 1990. Light trucks will have to meet an average fuel economy of 22.2 miles a gallon in 2007, up from the current standard of 20.7 mpg.
Backed by environmental groups, lawmakers have tried for years to increase auto fuel-efficiency standards, but congressional efforts have failed. That’s despite the call from some Republicans to increase CAFE standards as a way to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil.
Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) have introduced bills in past sessions to raise the standard as high as 36 miles per gallon.
Even with rising prices, demand for gasoline in the United States continues to grow.
According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), which records energy statistics for the Energy Department, motorists used 8.93 million barrels of gasoline a day in 2003. In 2004, that was projected to have increased to 9.06 million barrels per day.
A decade ago, demand stood at 7.6 million barrels a day, according to the EIA.
Bergquist said the auto industry favors tax incentives to purchase fuel-efficient cars such as hybrids or cars that run on clean diesel.
The alliance, for instance, urged support for a bill introduced this year in the House by Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) that would provide between $600 and $4,000 per vehicle in tax breaks for consumers who purchased so-called advanced-technology vehicles.
Democratic-leaning unions such as the United Auto Workers (UAW) favor that approach as well because it doesn’t penalize automakers that sell a number of models — light and heavy cars and trucks. The Big Three auto producers, for instance, would have a more difficult time complying with a higher CAFE than would Honda, with a car fleet largely made up of smaller models.
Domenici’s committee is expected to mark up an energy bill shortly after the spring recess.
“He’s obviously trying to look at all possibilities,” said Alan Reuther, the top lobbyist at UAW.
But, noting earlier failed efforts to boost the limit, Reuther predicted any change Domenici proposes wouldn’t be dramatic.
“I wouldn’t read too much into it,” Reuther said.