WASHINGTON — The Bush administration asked Congress Thursday to give it the authority to change fuel economy standards for passenger cars amid rising gas prices and growing concerns about the nation’s energy security.
Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta wrote House and Senate leaders asking for Congress to — for the first time — allow it to create a similar program it recently completed for pickup trucks, sport utility vehicles and vans.
“Along with other previously announced energy policies, the president believes these actions are critical to promoting our nation’s energy security and independence,” Mineta wrote.
Mineta said a simple increase in standards under the current Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) system “would increase fatalities on America’s highways, raise health care costs and reduce employment. As a result, the administration would oppose any increase in passenger car CAFE standards without corresponding reform.”
In Biloxi, Miss., President Bush noted Congress was debating several energy-related concepts, “and one idea is to give me a capacity to raise CAFE standards on automobiles.”
“I encourage them to give me that authority. It’s authority that I use for light trucks. And I intend to use it wisely if Congress would give me that authority,” Bush said.
Under law, the administration can change the system for light trucks but it was unclear if it could alter the requirements for passenger cars, which has been set by Congress. Mineta made a similar request for the ability to change the system in 2002, but it did not advance.
The administration’s request came as many motorists complain about gasoline prices exceeding $3 a gallon in some areas and an increased focus on energy policy. The request would not lead to any immediate increase in gas mileage requirements for passenger cars, and any new rules would give automakers at least 18 months to incorporate the changes into their vehicle lineup.
Under the current system for passenger cars, automakers are required to meet an average of 27.5 mpg, a number that has remained constant since 1990. Transportation officials said the current average of passenger cars on the road is 29.7 mpg.
Last month, the government set tighter gas mileage rules for pickups, SUVs and vans covering the 2008-2011 model years. The program, based on the vehicle’s size, is expected to save 10.7 billion gallons of fuel over the lifetime of the vehicles sold during that period.
U.S. automakers, notably General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co., have struggled in recent months, outlining plans to reduce work forces as they deal with shrinking market share, higher costs and intense competition from Asian automakers. Any deliberations over changing gas mileage standards are watched intensely by the auto industry.
Sherrie Childers-Arb, a GM spokeswoman, said “if changes are made we want to be sure that this program is designed in the fairest way possible for all auto manufacturers.”
On Capitol Hill, the move was met with some skepticism. Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., a longtime supporter of the auto industry, said he would review the proposals “to ensure they will not unduly burden American manufacturers and American workers.”
“I only hope folks understand these actions will have no near-term effect on rising gas prices. The American people deserve real solutions, not a bunch of smoke and mirrors,” he said.
House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., a longtime booster of higher mileage standards, said Mineta’s letter was a good sign but represented a weak commitment. He has been working to secure support for a proposal raising the fleetwide average for all vehicles to 33 mpg by 2016.
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