updated 12/22/2003 7:27:13 PM ET 2003-12-23T00:27:13

The Bush administration is looking at making larger SUVs, such as the Hummer H2, Ford Excursion and GMC Suburban, and large pickup trucks comply with federal fuel economy standards for the first time.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration also said Monday it is seeking comments on whether to change the definitions of cars and light trucks. Most sport utility vehicles now fall under the classification of light trucks, although they are used primarily as passenger vehicles. Heavier vehicles, such as the Hummer H2, weigh more than 8,500 pounds and are exempt from fuel standards.

"This marks the beginning of an important national dialogue," Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said. "We can and must work together to save more fuel, increase passenger safety and protect American jobs."

Deb Callahan, president of the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental group, said the Bush administration should simply treat SUVs and light trucks like cars and force all of them to get better gasoline mileage. "If they really cared about raising fuel efficiency standards, let's raise fuel efficiency standards and have SUVs and light trucks and automobiles all comply," she said.

In April, NHTSA announced a slight increase in the fuel economy standards for a manufacturer's fleet of light trucks. The new standards said trucks for the 2007 model year must average 22.2 miles per gallon, up from the current 20.7 mpg.

The required Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standard for new automobiles remains 27.5 mpg.

Because so many motorists are buying SUVs, the average fuel economy for all 2003 model vehicles on the road was 20.8 mpg, down 6 percent from the peak year of 1988, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Transportation Department spokesman Leonardo Alcivar said even the environmentalists have to agree that the current standards are outdated. "There is no ambiguity about the fact that these standards, given the changes in vehicle fleets, don't do what they mean to do to improve fuel efficiency and maximize safety," Alcivar said.

Automobile manufacturers are reviewing the proposal.

"They painted some broad strokes but we need to see the fine print," said Eron Shosteck, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

President Bush has opposed most efforts to improve fuel economy, saying they could cost U.S. jobs. An energy bill endorsed by the White House and passed by the House does not touch the current standards, but the legislation has stalled in the Senate. Bush has raised $1.9 million for his re-election from the oil and automotive industries.

In addition to considering fuel economy standards for large SUVs that weigh from 8,500 to 10,000 pounds, NHTSA said it is considering new fuel economy standards for light trucks and SUVs based on their weight.

Environmentalists said such standards would encourage automobile manufacturers to build heavier vehicles to take advantage of requirements that are more lax.

"The Bush administration is proposing to manipulate the most effective energy saving law to benefit the auto and oil industry polluters," said Daniel Becker, director of the global warming and energy project for the Sierra Club. "The Bush administration proposal is a giant Christmas gift for polluters but threatens consumers and the environment."

The Transportation Department said its proposal regarding truck weights was designed to reduce any incentive to make the vehicles lighter, which could make them less safe.

____

On the Net:

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/cars/rules/CAFE/rulemaking.htm

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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