WASHINGTON – House Democrats, emboldened to act on global warming, intend to push automakers at a hearing this week to accept higher fuel-economy standards.
The new leadership sees control of Congress as a chance to break through years of industry opposition to improved gasoline mileage. Auto executives are expected to argue that any major increases would cost the industry billions of dollars.
“They have resisted any increase in fuel economy standards for the last 20 years,” said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass. “I want to determine whether or not they’ve changed their tune, whether or not they are now willing to improve fuel economy and reduce emissions into the atmosphere.”
The auto executives scheduled to testify Wednesday before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on energy and air quality include G. Richard Wagoner Jr. of General Motors, Alan Mulally of Ford Motor, Tom LaSorda of DaimlerChrysler’s Chrysler Group and James Press of Toyota Motor.
Markey said he planned to introduce legislation Tuesday that would mandate a fuel-efficiency increase to 35 miles per gallon by 2018, with a further increase of 4 percent a year afterward. The U.S. standard now is 24.9 miles per gallon.
Proposed Bush administration rules have sought to soften the impact of regulations on the financially strapped industry. The White House plan would lift fuel-economy standards by as much as 4 percent a year over 10 years, an increase that automakers have said would be too strict.
Automakers say the industry would have to spend billions of dollars to change vehicle plans and add high-cost technology to comply with the administration proposal.
“The numbers will never add up,” said Greg Martin, a GM spokesman. “You can end up hobbling an industry with little in return.”
Automakers also are worried that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Barbara Boxer are taking the lead in spurring Congress to action. Both are Democrats from California, which has some of the nation’s toughest regulations over the auto industry.
Pelosi has pledged to make oil independence and global warming priorities for Democrats in Congress. On Friday, she named Markey chairman of a select committee on those issues.
Some House members say the committee was created to pressure Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va.,, chairman of the energy and air quality subcommittee.
Boucher said his goal is to craft a bill on global warming that could win the support of House Republicans and industries that produce the greenhouse gases causing the atmospheric change.
At Wednesday’s hearing, the executives will try to ensure that the auto industry doesn’t take all the blame for global warming. “Of all the carbon dioxide emissions in the United States, about one-fifth come from cars and trucks,” said Ziad Ojakli, Ford’s vice president of government and community relations. “We want to be part of the solution, but we don’t want to be the entire solution.”
The fuel-economy debate has been deadlocked for years in Washington, with the auto industry arguing about costs and complaining that new rules would force them to build smaller vehicles that consumers don’t want.
“They said the same thing in 1975 when Congress doubled the fuel-economy standards,” Markey said. Setting aside arguments on how tougher rules could harm the industry’s bottom line, Markey said, “I think the greater threat is that they don’t have more fuel-efficient automobiles and light trucks” to compete.
When gasoline prices soared after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, U.S. consumers began a shift to smaller vehicles. Because of the slowing sales of large trucks, Detroit automakers took one of their worst financial tumbles in decades, which forced the closing of dozens of plants and the loss of tens of thousands of jobs.
The United States is falling behind other nations that are pushing for better fuel economy as concerns mount over global warming. Automakers in the European Union agreed to voluntary increases in fuel-economy standards next year that will lift the average to 44.2 miles per gallon, according to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. In Japan, average vehicle fuel economy tops 45 mpg.