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Senators Debate Increasing Fuel Standards for Vehicles

June 20, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: It’s been more than two decades since fuel economy standards were raised for cars in the U.S. Cars are required to get 27.5 miles per gallon on average. Light trucks, including SUVs, minivans and pickups, must meet a fleet average of just over 21 miles a gallon.

But one provision of the energy bill being debated in the Senate would change the corporate fuel economy standards, or CAFE standards as they are known, and it has backers from both parties. That measure would require all cars and trucks on average to get 35 miles a gallon by 2020 and keep raising standards for years after that.

Last week, a different bipartisan group of senators introduced an alternative amendment that’s more favorable to the industry. It calls for cars to get 36 miles per gallon on average by a later date, 2022. The requirement for trucks is less stringent; they need to get 30 miles a gallon on average by the year 2025.

For a closer look now at the two competing measures and the views behind them, we get two views from the Senate: Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, who’s advocated tougher standards for a long time; and Republican Kit Bond of Missouri, a co-sponsor of the alternative plan.

Senator Durbin, let’s start with you. What’s the measure that you’re sponsoring meant to accomplish?

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), Illinois: It’s been 22 years since we’ve increased the fuel economy of cars and trucks in America. We’ve become more dependent on foreign oil; we’re burning more gasoline this year to drive the same miles we drove last year. I think it’s time to step into this debate again.

We put together a bipartisan coalition in the Commerce Committee that’s going to call for an increase in the fuel efficiency of cars and trucks, up to 36 miles a gallon, by the year 2020. It will mean a dramatic savings when it comes to the oil that’s being burned, the pollution that’s being emitted, and our dependence on foreign oil. This is really a test of how sincere we are about our dependency on foreign oil and our concern about global warming.

RAY SUAREZ: Senator Bond, let’s take a look at your amendment. How does it differ from what Senator Durbin just described?

SEN. KIT BOND (R), Missouri: Frankly, we’re all going in the same direction. We want to increase the average mileage that cars get and trucks get, but we also are living in a practical world where we have a domestic auto industry, and we now have foreign auto manufacturers who are building cars here. And they’re making cars that the public wants to drive.

We have crafted a bipartisan alternate, as you describe, which says, by 2022, cars have to meet a 35-mile-per-gallon standard, and we recognize that trucks are different. If you have the same standard for cars and trucks, you’re going to knock out truck production and light truck production and SUVs completely in the United States. And we will see farmers having to carry their hay bails to feed their cattle in glorified golf carts.

We think that we can make significant improvements, and that’s why we set standard of 30 miles per gallon for light trucks by 2025. But the automatic escalator in the underlying bill that my colleague from Illinois supports raises it to 52 gallons, and that means we’re all driving around in little European shoeboxes. The American consumer does not want that.

The American consumer is buying less gasoline, taking measures to cut down on usage, because the price is making it more expensive. We want to push as fast as we can to get the technology in place so that we will be able to get cars and trucks manufactured here in the United States that can meet the standards, give the consumers what they need, whether they be families wanted to haul their kids to various events, or farmers or other workmen who need to have the trucks to haul either feed for cattle or equipment that they need in their operations.

We believe ours is doable. It’s a stretch. It makes the industry bend, but it does not break it.

Setting realistic standards

RAY SUAREZ: Senator Durbin, what do you make of your neighbor from Missouri's critique, that the domestic production industry just couldn't handle the standards that you propose?

SEN. DICK DURBIN: We've heard this song before, 1975, facing an oil crisis. We said it's time to have fuel efficiency standards in American cars. And when we made the proposal, we heard exactly what my friend from Missouri said, "Why, it's technologically impossible! These cars will be too light; they won't serve the needs of America. There will be too many imports. We'll lose jobs."

Well, we ignored it, and we said, "We've got to push forward. We owe it to our consumers across America," and we did it. All of their concerns and all of their worries notwithstanding, we raised the average fuel economy of cars from 14 to 27.5 miles a gallon in a matter of 10 years.

And now, 20 years later, it is time for us to challenge again, to say to the industry: If we can build that kind of a vehicle in Japan, we can build it in America. If we have in Europe today a 37-mile-per-gallon requirement, and we have Ford and GM building to that requirement in Europe, why can't they build to that requirement in the United States?

I know it's a challenge, but it's a significant difference. If we take the approach, which my friend, Senator Bond, has proposed, the amount of oil that is going to be saved is one-third by his approach over the approach which our bipartisan approach is going to try to do, 10-miles-per-gallon improvement over a 10-year period of time.

This is a significant test. I feel sorry for our friends in Detroit. They have fallen behind. They're falling on hard times, but they have to accept the challenge the rest of the world has accepted: to come up with more fuel-efficient cars to serve the needs of families, and businesses, and farmers -- trucks, as well -- and to do it in a sensible fashion.

I think America can meet this challenge. I'm optimistic. And I think, if some of the Detroit manufacturers spend a little more time with their engineering department rather than their legal department, that they could meet this challenge.

Behind foreign automakers?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Senator Bond, you heard Senator Durbin talk about how this almost postponed a day of reckoning, that the domestic industry has been allowed to slide in the past, and now, in many respects, they're behind foreign producers, who are actually building their cars and trucks in the United States.

SEN. KIT BOND: First, let me point out how the car manufacturers had to meet their standards initially. They reduced significantly the weight of the automobiles and caused safety hazards. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration figures between 1,200 and 2,500, probably roughly 2,000 lives a year, were lost because of the smaller cars.

We did include -- and over the last years, on a bipartisan basis, we've told the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to increase that mileage as technology became available. And make no mistake about it: The auto industry, the manufacturers, our colleges and universities are pushing to increase mileage. And we provide in our measure that, to the extent that additional technology is developed, then the NHTSA can increase that mileage.

But what you're talking about now is providing vehicles that may work well in crowded European cities but don't serve the needs of the people in America. And to crush all of the auto industry, the auto parts suppliers would have not only an effect on many states -- like Missouri, Ohio, Indiana, where the autos are made -- but all of the other states where auto parts are produced.

It would affect jobs. It would affect our economy. And it would have a very significant impact on the choices that American consumers to make.

RAY SUAREZ: Senator Bond...

SEN. KIT BOND: We need to make fuel standards higher and tougher, but we need to make them achievable.

RAY SUAREZ: Senator Bond, does the domestic auto industry support your approach to raising these standards? Have they signaled to you that they'd be willing to live with your softer targets?

SEN. KIT BOND: They said they thought they could try -- they would try to meet these. They think it's a reasonable target, one that the technology advances that they envision can meet. But they do not believe that they have any chance of meeting by 2020 the requirement that they have 35 miles per gallon for cars and trucks, and they also are required to meet flexible fuel vehicles, 50 percent of them.

And the car companies, even the foreign car companies manufacturing cars here, are already planning their models and in no way can meet those standards for flexible-fuel vehicles that quickly.

Impractical standards?

RAY SUAREZ: Senator Durbin, what about that, that you've got an industry, both foreign makers who are based and working in the United States, and American-based companies that are saying this is just too hard, it's impractical?

SEN. DICK DURBIN: I don't accept it, and I can tell you that we built into this bipartisan approach, which we're bringing to the floor, an off-ramp if we find that it's impossible, if they can't do it from a technological viewpoint, at some later date, then they're going to be absolved from increased fuel efficiency.

But the goal that we're trying to reach here is a significant one. Currently, the administration, the Bush administration and NHTSA, have set a goal of 29.2 miles a gallon for trucks. It's interesting that the proposal that Senator Bond and others will offer only reaches 30 miles per gallon. They really aren't putting the effort into it.

But the National Academy of Sciences tells us there's ample technology. And I want to address issue of safety for a moment, if I can. We have seen over the past 10 or 20 years significant improvement in the safety of cars and trucks. We're talking about seat belts and airbags, and side protection, things -- anti-lock brakes -- things that didn't exist in the past, new technology that make our vehicles safer.

We do not have to sacrifice safety or convenience in order to provide the kind of fuel efficiency which reduces gasoline costs for families and businesses, and also reduces the pollution which is causing havoc in many parts of our world, with climate change and global warming.

RAY SUAREZ: Very briefly, Senator Durbin, have you gotten any signals from the White House as to their attitude toward your version of the bill?

SEN. DICK DURBIN: Well, there are certain elements in our bipartisan approach which they have endorsed. Namely, we are not lumping all vehicles into one category, but separating them out according to size attributes and weight. I think that's a reasonable approach that gives our manufacturers a fighting chance.

But there's no question about it: They're going to have to rise to this challenge, and I think they can. I have a great deal of confidence in our automobile industry. Once challenged, they'll meet it.

RAY SUAREZ: And very quickly, Senator Bond, before we go, what's percolating up through the House? And is there any version there that your bipartisan group can actually make common cause with and get a bill out of the legislature?

SEN. KIT BOND: I'm not an authority on the House, but I understand there's no percolating. There are several pots boiling, and there are some very divergent views. I think somebody who's better, watching the House more closely, would tell you that there seem to be some real differences in the leadership in the House. So we're not counting on them.

We want to pass a bill that does improve miles per gallon and that does treat the trucks and cars differently. That's why we hope we can get our approach adopted, and perhaps the House would go along with ours.

RAY SUAREZ: Senator Bond, Senator Durbin, gentlemen, thank you both.

SEN. DICK DURBIN: Thank you.

SEN. KIT BOND: Thank you.