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Lawmaker prepares to do battle to boost cars' fuel efficiency


WASHINGTON -- A Nevada senator wants to see the average new car get 40 miles per gallon by the turn of the century. Detroit automakers and their allies on Capitol Hill want him to take a hike.

The controversial issue of boosting the fuel efficiency of cars was dropped from the energy bill now before the Senate. Democratic leaders feared the provision would derail the entire measure.

But Sen. Richard H. Bryan, D-Nev., the Senate's chief advocate of fuel efficiency, said he may push ahead with a separate bill this year that would require all automakers to make cars that get better gas mileage by 2001. The measure makes sense for the environment and consumers, he said, and would reduce America's reliance on foreign oil.

"Detroit has been mired with the same attitude to fight and resist it," Mr. Bryan said yesterday, shortly after lawmakers started debating the energy legislation. "I think it's a mind set, the same reason they fight air bags."

However, automakers contend that increasing fuel efficiency standards will require costly design changes and force them to build smaller, less-safe cars.

Under a 1975 law, the federal government mandated that an automaker's fleet average 27.5 mpg by 1985. Mr. Bryan's bill would raise mileage standards 20 percent by 1995 and 40 percent -- to 40 mpg -- by 2001.

In September 1990, Mr. Bryan's measure was supported by 57 senators, but it fell three votes short of the 60 needed to cut off debate and proceed toward a final vote.

The standard that was dropped from the energy bill would have boosted average fuel efficiency to 34 mpg by 2001. But the figure was not high enough for environmentalists and too high for pro-auto lawmakers, and failed to win either side's support.

Environmental groups say Mr. Bryan's 40-mpg standard would lower the amount of gasses thought to create global warming, while consumer groups say the measure would save a car driver $133 each year.

Increasing the average fuel efficiency to 40 mpg would save 2.5 million barrels of oil each day, Mr. Bryan said. But opponents are armed with competing statistics.

Jeff Conley, executive director of the Coalition for Vehicle Choice, said their statistics show a 38-mpg fuel efficiency standard would add $1,000 to the cost of a new car. It is doubtful consumers could recoup that amount through higher gas mileage, he said.

The Bryan proposal faces strong opposition from the coalition, a lobbying group formed by the auto industry to fight new fuel standards. Besides forcing Detroit to build smaller cars, the group also says the proposal would reduce the availability of vans and pickup trucks.

The coalition is now running radio and TV ads in the Washington area warning of the dangers of the Bryan measure.

Meanwhile, lawmakers who have auto workers for constituents -- most notably Sen. Donald W. Riegle, Jr. D-Mich. -- say the requirements would force Detroit to spend tens of billions of dollars to make needed changes for the new regulations.

"I don't think any senator can support $70 billion in regulations on an industry that is ailing and may not survive," said one congressional aide, pointing to General Motors Corp.'s plans to lay off 74,000 workers over the next three years. "It's not a good time" to require better fuel efficiency.

Backers of the Bryan measure dispute the costs of the measure to Detroit. But they concede GM's layoffs and the sluggish economy may make lawmakers skittish about supporting the measure.

"I think it will be a very close vote," Mr. Bryan said.

There has been no vote on new fuel efficiency standards in the House. Advocates of Mr. Bryan's proposal wonder if they can get a bill past Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Dingell -- of Detroit.

Mr. Bryan and his supporters strongly dispute that higher fuel standards mean less-safe cars.

"I think that's a bogus issue," said the senator, recalling that Detroit made the same argument in the mid-1970s. "There's absolutely no reason we can't build an automobile that's fuel efficient and safe," he added, noting the Japanese are making such strides.

He is backed by a study from the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, which said automakers can improve fuel economy without a decrease in auto safety.

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