Senate bill calls for automakers to increase mpg

WASHINGTON – As motorists face near record gasoline prices, the Senate took up an energy bill Tuesday that would raise auto fuel economy standards for the first time in nearly 20 years and make oil industry price gouging a federal crime.

Democratic leaders in both the Senate and House said they want broad energy legislation passed before the July 4th congressional recess, hoping to dampen growing voter anger over paying well above $3 a gallon at gasoline pumps across the country.

The Senate bill calls on automakers to boost their fuel economy to a fleet average of 35 miles per gallon by 2020, about a 40 percent increase over what new cars and the less fuel-efficient sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks are required to attain today. The auto standard of 27.5 mpg was last increased 18 years ago. SUVS and small trucks must achieve a fleet average of 22.2 mpg.

Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Tuesday the bill would help reduce the country’s reliance on oil – an addiction that consumes more than 21 million barrels a day, nearly two-thirds of it imported.

The White House issued a statement opposing many of the bill’s most critical parts, including the mandatory increase in automobile fuel economy. It also said President Bush would be urged to veto the legislation if it contained the price-gouging language.

The Senate late Tuesday added a provision to the bill that requires the president to establish policies that cut petroleum use by 10 million barrels a day by 2031; it was approved 63-30.

Executives of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler called on Senate leaders last week arguing that the Senate bill’s requirements may not be achievable. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., is working on a more modest fuel economy proposal that he says automakers believe they can meet.

The Senate bill, which faces numerous hurdles to overcome over the next two weeks, also would sharply ramp up the use of ethanol as a substitute for gasoline, requiring production of 36 billion gallons of ethanol a year by 2022, five times today’s production.

While the additional ethanol initially would come from corn, eventually nearly two-thirds of it is expected to be produced from prairie grasses, wood chips and other sources of cellulose.

Many of the bill’s provisions have bipartisan support, but Republicans want more, especially more domestic production of oil, natural gas and coal as well as expansion of nuclear power.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said a price-gouging provision she has been advocating may reduce the prospects of future price spikes.

The oil industry has repeatedly argued that many investigations have failed to uncover price fixing by oil companies. “If there is no manipulation, there should be no fear of a strong federal statute,” Cantwell countered at a news conference Tuesday.

Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, called the price-gouging provision “a feel-good vote” that he probably would support. “But does it bring gas prices down? Probably not,” he said.

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