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House-Senate Energy Conferees Take Step Backward on Fuel Economy; Provisions Increase Net Fuel Use

Sept. 19, 2002

House-Senate Energy Conferees Take Step Backward on Fuel Economy; Provisions Increase Net Fuel Use

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In a crucial vote today, House and Senate conferees adopted a retrograde fuel economy plan that actually increases the country’s net consumption of gasoline by four billion gallons through 2012. The negotiations were part of the conference to reconcile massive energy bills passed earlier by both chambers.

“The congressional negotiators walked away from an opportunity to reduce our dependence of Middle East oil, cut pollution and put money back into consumers’ pockets, and succumbed to intense pressure from automobile industry lobbyists and the White House to pass a compromise riddled with half-measures and loopholes,” said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook. “This entire energy bill is nothing but a massive handout to corporate America at a time when the public is suffering through a sour economy caused in large part by corporate crime and excess, much of it in the energy business.”

Conferees adopted a House provision projected to improve fuel economy for light trucks by about one mile per gallon – saving about five billion gallons of fuel. But those savings were more than offset by another measure that gives automobile manufacturers credits for producing “dual-fuel” vehicles. Combined, the two provisions increase consumption by four billion gallons.

On a positive note, Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) succeeded in rallying Democrats to thwart a last-minute lobbying push by the White House to adopt new regulatory hurdles to improving fuel economy that would have given industry new avenues to delay and challenge rules in court.

“This was a malicious ploy to throw a new monkeywrench into the already overburdened rulemaking process and give the auto industry, which is closely aligned with the White House, the opportunity to paralyze regulators,” Claybrook said.

Measures adopted by the conferees today include:

  • A House provision requiring the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to enact fuel economy standards for light trucks (including SUVs), for model years 2006 through 2012, that ensure a fuel savings of about five billion gallons. The 2006 date for action is two years later than called for in the original House bill.
  • Extension of a monstrous loophole for so-called “dual-fuel” vehicles, which can run on either gasoline or ethanol. The catch is that because ethanol is available at only 121 of 176,000 service stations nationwide, even in dual-fuel vehicles drivers use gasoline rather than ethanol. This provision actually increases fuel use by nine billion gallons, because automakers get credit for fuel savings that never occur, lowering the corporate fuel economy they must achieve. Although a National Academy of Sciences study found that lawmakers should fix this problem, the conferees voted to extend this boondoggle until 2012.
  • Language calling for another fuel economy study by the National Academy of Sciences, a waste of taxpayer money and a delaying tactic.

Claybrook faulted Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) for trying to add back in some regulatory hurdles to make it harder for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to set stronger fuel economy standards.

“Sen. Murkowski trotted out the discredited industry canard that greater fuel economy means compromising safety and leads to the loss of jobs,” Claybrook said. “But study after study shows that increasing fuel economy creates jobs. And he is flatly wrong on the safety issue. Because this bill addresses only fuel economy improvements for light trucks, taking some of the heft out of those vehicles would be a blessing for other motorists who would face a reduced risk of getting crushed by these lumbering behemoths.”