sábado, enero 27, 2007

USA: A battle takes shape over fuel rules

From the president's visit to a Delaware biofuels lab to top Democrats making nice at the Washington Auto Show, the debate over the future of the U.S. auto industry took center stage on Wednesday.

President George W. Bush and his aides fanned out to promote his 20 in 10 energy proposal that he unveiled Tuesday, with the administration defending it from environmentalists' complaints.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. John Dingell, D-Dearborn, led House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on a brief tour of fuel-efficient Detroit models at the auto show, an event staged to smooth over their dispute about how the House will tackle global warming.

With both branches of government in pursuit of more efficient vehicles, tougher fuel economy rules seem increasingly likely.

But with no consensus on how to tackle global warming in other parts of the economy, Detroit automakers will likely carry much of the burden for concerns about the nation's energy security and climate change over the next several months.

The president's plan
Bush's proposal aims to cut U.S. gasoline consumption by 20% by 2017 through an increase in fuel economies and a sharp boost in alternative fuels. While the alternative-fuels plan enjoys widespread support from Democrats and Republicans, industry and environmental groups said the fuel economy pitch would face a hard battle between lawmakers who want higher targets and automakers.

"The future of the auto market is going to be driven by upside swings in the price of oil and concerns about global warming," said Joseph Romm, an author and former energy efficiency official in the Clinton administration. Detroit automakers "need to make fuel-efficient vehicles, and if the government has to require it, that's not so bad."

Federal officials said in order to save about 8.5 billion gallons of gasoline, fuel efficiency standards would have to rise 4% a year starting in the 2010 model year for cars and the 2012 model year for trucks.

In a speech at a DuPont research lab in Delaware, Bush said his 20 in 10 plan was key to reducing the threat posed by foreign regimes that can tinker with the nation's energy supply. Sixty percent of U.S. oil is imported. In addition to the mileage increase, the president's plan would mandate the production of 35 billion gallons of alternative fuels by 2017.

The plans are "all aiming to make us less dependent on oil, and thereby making us more secure nationally and be able to say we're better stewards of the environment," Bush said.

Bush also signed an executive order Wednesday directing federal agencies to buy more fuel-efficient vehicles, increase their alternative-fuel consumption by at least 10% a year and buy plug-in hybrid vehicles if they become available.

Environmentalists have noted that the 4% increase in the president's plan, equal to about 34 miles per gallon, mirrors similar ideas in Congress.

The major difference is that Bush's increase is a goal, not a hard figure -- the final increase would be set by federal regulators after reviewing the costs to automakers based on future product plans.

Many observers say without a hard target, the plan will not go far in a Democratic-controlled Congress.

Slim chances
"You have to credit the guy with coming up with a rhetorical number that we have to acknowledge is good," said John DeCicco, a senior fellow with Environmental Defense. "As articulated, the proposals are visionary, but very uncertain in terms of whether they'll deliver."

Romm and DeCicco noted that fuel economy increases would make more sense if they were part of an economy-wide effort to reduce carbon emissions, where reductions would be shared by several industries.

Despite the lobbying by several energy utilities and environmental groups, Bush aides have said the president was not in favor of such a proposal, and did not bring up the idea in the State of the Union.

Several members of Congress have favored setting a simple target for fuel economy of 35 to 40 miles per gallon within a similar time.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said in a speech Wednesday that while the administration's 8.5-billion gallon goal was key to the plan, giving the administration flexibility "is far more likely to produce an optimal result ... than if Congress were to raise the number arbitrarily."

Keeping thoughts to themselves
So far, automakers have refrained from offering extensive public comments on Bush's proposals because many details remain undisclosed. But industry officials inside and outside of Detroit say a 4% annual increase will be a significant hurdle, noting that the last increase in fuel economy standards for trucks averaged just more than 2% a year, with an estimated cost to the industry of $6.2 billion.

They also note that time is running short. Under law, to set efficiency standards for 2010 models, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would need to issue its final rule by June 2008, and would need several months before that to write a proposal, solicit data from automakers and take comments.

Dingell has said the Bush administration did not need congressional approval for a similar proposal last year. His opposition to past fuel economy proposals was one reason Pelosi launched a House committee on global warming, which many lawmakers saw as a challenge to Dingell's responsibilities.

To ease stories of intra-party rancor, Dingell invited Pelosi to a tour of the auto show.

Surrounded by a pack of reporters, Dingell introduced Pelosi to environmental executives from General Motors, Ford and DaimlerChrysler, who offered quick overviews of a few energy-efficient models: the Saturn Vue Green Line Hybrid, the Ford Escape E85 hybrid concept and the Jeep Grand Cherokee diesel.

"We're not here to talk about our differences," Dingell said. "We're here to work as friends."

"I think what the president said last night was very important, and I think it's a basis for a very strong conversation on alternative energy," Pelosi said. "He's given us a place to start."


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