WASHINGTON -- For years, Detroit automakers have fought off attempts in Congress to increase vehicle miles-per-gallon standards.
But now, tougher fuel-economy rules stand their best chance of clearing Congress amid heightened concern about gas prices and global warming.
That's not to say the fight is over.
Environmental groups hope to strengthen the legislation as it moves through Congress. The auto industry and United Auto Workers contend the measure is too drastic and warn that it could deny consumers the SUVs and pickups they want, damaging a key sector of the economy.
The measure, which the Senate began debating yesterday, would boost fleet-wide average fuel standards to 35 miles per gallon by 2020, up from 25. It would increase standards by 4 percent a year from 2021 to 2030. If passed, it would be the first increase in standards for passenger cars in about 18 years. The first increase could come in model year 2011.
The tougher standards are the centerpiece of an energy bill that is the first major legislative effort by Democrats, since they gained the majority in January, to address global warming and U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
"Achieving the increases in this bill is doable with present technology," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who is one of the bill's chief sponsors. "And I believe it has a realistic chance to pass the United States Senate and hopefully be enacted into law."
The overall bill, expected to draw bipartisan support, also would ramp up domestic production of alternative fuels, from a projected 6.5 billion-7 billion gallons this year to 36 billion gallons by 2022. It would authorize funding for projects to capture greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and other polluters. It would promote energy efficiency in consumer products ranging from light bulbs to big-screen TVs. And it would make gasoline price-gouging a federal offense during a presidentially declared emergency, similar to a recently passed House measure.
An effort is expected to be made to add a requirement that utilities produce 15 percent of their electricity from alternative sources, such as solar and wind power, by 2020. Other legislation to address global warming, such as a contentious proposal for a cap on emissions, is slated to be considered later this year.
The provision calling for tougher fuel-economy standards reflects a significant political shift in Congress, coming just two years after a proposal to increase vehicle fuel-efficiency rules drew only 28 Senate votes.
A number of lawmakers from both parties who previously opposed a fuel-economy increase now support it. And unlike 2005, when climate change merited scant attention in the 1,724-page Republican-drafted energy bill that President Bush signed into law, the subject seems to be on everybody's lips, even Bush's.
"So much has changed over the last couple of years," Anna Aurelio, an environmental lobbyist for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, said yesterday, citing efforts by California and other states to pass laws to regulate vehicle tailpipe emissions in the absence of federal action.
Additionally, gas prices - averaging $3.04 nationally yesterday for self-serve regular, down from a record $3.21 on May 2 - have caused anxiety among members of both parties on Capitol Hill.
Detroit's clout on the issue also might be declining.
Reid, who met with chief executives of the Big Three automakers last week, said in a speech at the Center for American Progress yesterday, "Perhaps if they had joined us, instead of fighting us these last 20 years, they might not be in the financial mess they're in today."
Environmentalists have called tougher fuel-economy rules a key step that Congress could take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and oil imports.
Cars and light trucks, including sport utility vehicles, pickups and vans, account for about one-fifth of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.
Currently, an automaker's car fleet must average 27.5 miles per gallon. Light trucks, including SUVs, minivans and pickups, must average 22.2 mpg, which will go to 24 by 2011.
Richard Simon writes for the Los Angeles Times.