Mileage standards pit greens vs. industry

WASHINGTON Consumers in Ohio could save billions of dollars if Congress enacts tough new gas mileage
Tom Jackson
May 24, 2010

WASHINGTON

Consumers in Ohio could save billions of dollars if Congress enacts tough new gas mileage standards, environmental groups say.

Auto workers, however, and two northern Ohio members of Congress say the real issue is whether American workers will lose jobs if the standards are raised unfairly. Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, D-Toledo, and Congressman Paul Gillmor, R-Tiffin, say they support tightening gas mileage rules, but also want to make sure Detroit's Big Three are not harmed.

"The split on this issue is not going to be the party line Republican-Democrat split," Gillmor said.

As she considers her vote in next week's showdown in Congress over the issue, Kaptur is weighing advice from two groups of friends.

The Sierra Club, which backed Kaptur for re-election, wants her to accelerate mileage standards by supporting H.R. 1506, a bill forcing each automaker to raise the fuel efficiency for its entire fleet of vehicles to 35 miles per gallon by 2018. The measure resembles a slightly less stringent provision in the U.S. Senate's recently-passed energy measure.

SAVING DRIVERS MONEY

Tom Bullock, Ohio representative for the National Environmental Trust, said adopting the measure backed by the Sierra Club and his organization would save Ohio motorists $1.4 billion a year.

Besides saving consumers money at the gas pump, H.R. 1506 would reduce U.S. dependence on imported oil supplies and lessen the danger from global warming, said Sarah Topy, conservation coordinator for the Sierra Club in Ohio. Those are all "very short-term attainable goals," she said.

But the United Auto Workers, loyal Kaptur supporters, want her to back a measure supported by the domestic auto industry that would give carmakers until 2022 to raise the mileage fleet standard to 32 mpg.

The UAW gave Kaptur $10,000 during her last campaign, when she received $147,500 from labor groups, exceeding the $120,900 she received from businesses, according to figures compiled at Opensecrets.org.

The National Environmental Trust backs the tougher bill, which it says would save 1.7 million barrels of oil a day in 2020. The UAW-backed bill would only save 0.5 million barrels a day, it says.

A vote on the matter is expected Wednesday in the House, Topy said.

Kaptur said this week she's waiting to read the final draft, but is "probably closer" to the UAW position.

The federal government should use incentives, not coercion, to pressure a domestic car industry that has to compete in an unfair global market against countries such as Korea, Japan and China, Kaptur said.

"I believe no nation should permit its domestic automotive sector to decline," Kaptur said. "Those of us who represent automotive America have to present a more realistic point of view."

JOBS ARE CRUCIAL ISSUE, UAW SAYS

The measure backed by the UAW, H.R. 2927, would allow the country to improve fuel efficiency without imposing a regulation that jeopardizes hard-pressed domestic car makers, UAW officials contend.

"Consumers want more fuel-efficient cars and we need to reduce our dependence on foreign oil," said UAW President Ron Gettelfinger, referring to a similar measure the UAW backed in the Senate. "But workers are part of the environment, too, and drastic proposals which destabilize our industry won't do anyone much good in the long run."

Gillmor said the tough standards backed by environmentalists are unfair to the U.S. car industry, which relies on sales of light trucks, pickups and vans.

"You have different kinds of manufacturers who have a different product mix," Gillmor said. "They have different problems in terms of complying."

SHOULD CONGRESS DO NOTHING?

The UAW proposal is better than the bill backed by environmentalists, said Jerry Taylor, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a free market think tank in Washington, D.C.

But the best approach would be for Congress to scrap all fuel efficiency standards, he said.

"I believe the industry ought to be left alone to build whatever consumers want to buy," he said.

Consumers have been buying more fuel-efficient cars as gas prices go up, and that trend will continue if pump prices continue to soar, Taylor said. Last year, U.S. consumers bought cars that had an average fuel efficiency of 31.5 mpg, four above the current government standard, he said.

"High prices will encourage conservation without any need for congressional activity," he said.