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Auto execs head to Congress for warming talks

Amid calls for higher gas mileage standards and worries about global warming, U.S. auto industry leaders plan to highlight their work to develop alternative vehicles and raise questions about the costs of a proposed fuel economy hike.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Amid calls for higher gas mileage standards and worries about global warming, U.S. auto industry leaders plan to highlight their work to develop alternative vehicles and raise questions about the costs of a proposed fuel economy hike.

The leaders of General Motors, Ford, Toyota and Chrysler, in a rare joint appearance Wednesday before a congressional subcommittee, will also stress that they represent only part of the climate change calculus and that a broad response from several industries is needed to meet the challenges of global warming.

A panel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee will hear from Rick Wagoner, General Motors Corp.'s chairman and chief executive; Ford Motor Co. Chief Executive Alan Mulally; Toyota Motor Corp.'s North American President Jim Press; and Tom LaSorda, president and CEO of DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group. United Auto Workers union president Ron Gettelfinger will also testify.

The executives will meet with Congress at a time when many lawmakers are concerned about global warming and several are seeking ways to require more fuel efficiency in vehicles. The White House is targeting a 4 percent increase in the fuel economy requirements and wants to change the way the rules are applied.

Some members of Congress see the auto industry as a logical place to begin tackling global warming and are wary of giving the government and industry too much flexibility in meeting higher standards. Many lawmakers were disappointed with a recent rule for pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles, which amounted to less than a 2-mile-per-gallon increase over four years.

35 mpg average by 2018?
Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., a leading proponent of higher gas mileage standards, outlined legislation Tuesday meant to increase the requirements by at least 4 percent every year for a fleetwide average of 35 miles per gallon by 2018 — an improvement of about 10 mpg from current levels.

But three of the four automakers will be meeting with Congress at a time of economic hardship. GM, Ford and Chrysler have all announced layoffs and plant closings and the industry is nervously eyeing an early, $100 billion-plus projected cost for raising the fuel economy standards under President Bush's plan.

Gettelfinger is expected to stress that raising fuel economy standards could lead to more costs and job losses. The UAW argues that any new efficiency requirements need to be coupled with tax incentives to encourage domestic production of advanced vehicles.

The hearing is expected to cover ways to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The auto industry will assert that it's not solely responsible for global warming — about 20 percent of the nation's carbon dioxide emissions come from cars and trucks.

"We want to be part of the solution. We shouldn't be the entire solution," said Ziad Ojakli, Ford's group vice president of corporate affairs.

Making stew ... the right way
Press, speaking Tuesday in Detroit, said auto manufacturers want to be a part of the solution to the problems of greenhouse gasses and global warming. Any good solution, he said, will take a discussion involving government, automakers, oil companies, scientists, battery manufacturers and others.

"All this has to be put in a stew, and we've got to make that stew and its got to work, because we're going to have one chance to do it the right way," Press said.

The executives are also expected to stress their work to diversify the fleet through hybrid and electric cars, vehicles running on diesel and ethanol and the development of hydrogen fuel cells.

"Biofuels and the continued electrification of the automobile begin to remove gasoline and CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions from the debate," said GM spokesman Greg Martin.

Last year the leaders of GM, Ford and DaimlerChrysler said that by 2010 they would double production of "flexible fuel" vehicles, which can run on ethanol blends of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. They have a target of building 2 million of these vehicles a year by then, but note that less than 1 percent of the nation's 170,000 gas stations currently offer E85, and most are found in the Midwest.

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the committee's chairman, said Tuesday in a conference call with reporters that he was hopeful the Congress doesn't get stuck in "old-fashioned thinking" about increasing fuel economy standards. He said any legislation crafted to deal with global warming needs to be broad in its scope.

"We are not going to concentrate on one industry, one area or one part of the problem," Dingell said.