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Senate approves new fuel-economy standards

The Senate passed a trimmed-back energy bill Thursday that would bring higher-gas mileage vehicles into showrooms in the coming decade and fill their tanks with ethanol.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Senate passed a trimmed-back energy bill Thursday that would bring higher-gas mileage cars and SUVs into showrooms in the coming decade and fill their tanks with ethanol.

The measure was approved with strong bipartisan support 86-8 after Democrats abandoned efforts to impose billions of dollars in new taxes on the biggest oil companies, unable by one vote to overcome a Republican filibuster against the new taxes.

The bill now goes to the House where a vote is expected next week. Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky predicted President Bush will sign the bill.

The measure calls for the first major increase by Congress in required automobile fuel efficiency in 32 years, something the auto companies have fought for two decades.

The car companies will have to achieve an industrywide average 35 mile per gallon for cars, small trucks and SUVs over the next 13 years, an increase of 10 mpg over what the entire fleet averages today.

And it would boost use of ethanol to 36 billion gallons a year by 2022, a sevenfold increase, and impose an array of new requirements to promote efficiency in appliances, lighting and buildings.

This bill “will begin to reverse our addiction to oil. It’s a step to fight global warming,” said Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

The increased efficiency by 2020 will save 1.1 million barrels of oil of a day, equal to half the oil now imported from the Persian Gulf, save consumers $22 billion at the pump, and reduce annual greenhouse gases emissions by 200 million tons, said Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii., whose committee crafted the measure.

“It demonstrates to the world that America is a leader in fighting global warming,” he said.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., a longtime protector of the auto industry that is so important to his state, called the fuel economy measure “ambitious but achievable.”

For consumers, the legislation will mean that over the next dozen years auto companies will likely build more diesel-powered SUVs and gas-electric hybrid cars as well as vehicles that can run on 85 percent ethanol. They will push engineers to develop new technologies to save fuel.

“Automakers can meet the new standards with today’s technology,” said David Friedman, research director at the Union of Concerned Scientists Clean Vehicle Program. “Cars and trucks will be the same size and perform the same way they do today.”

But they may be using a different fuel.

The energy legislation would require that ethanol use as a motor fuel be ramped up at an unprecedented pace to 36 billion gallons a year by 2022. And at least 21 billion gallons will have to be ethanol from feedstock other than corn such as prairie grasses, switchgrass and wood chips.

About 6.5 billion gallons of ethanol were expected to be used as a gasoline additive this year, according to the Renewable Fuels Association, which represents ethanol producers.

The legislation also would increase energy efficiency requirements for appliances and federal and commercial buildings and require faster approval of federal energy efficiency standards.

These measures, said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., “will eventually save more energy than all our previous energy efficiency measures combined.”