Dingell Warns Big Three to Improve Vehicles' Fuel Economy

DETROIT February 9, 2004;Jeffrey Ball writing for the WSJ reported that one of the U.S. auto industry's most powerful supporters on Capitol Hill, Rep. John D. Dingell (News) (D., Mich.) warned U.S. auto makers to take "bold, serious and visionary" steps to improve the fuel economy of its cars and trucks or prepare to suffer a "spectacular" political hit at the hands of environmentalists.

As the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Dingell has for years helped the Big Three auto makers fend off calls for a significant toughening of the nation's Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards. His efforts have won him praise from the Big Three and scorn from environmental activists.

In a speech delivered to the Detroit Economic Club Monday and in an interview afterward, Rep. Dingell made clear he thinks the most realistic way for the Big Three to improve the fuel economy of their vehicles is to boost production in the U.S. of diesel vehicles.

Diesel cars have captured a big chunk of the auto market in Europe, where gasoline costs as much as $5 a gallon, both because they are powerful and a lot cleaner and quieter than they were decades ago. But they still aren't clean enough to meet upcoming U.S. clean-air laws, which are tougher than Europe's laws are.

Several auto makers have announced plans to roll out small numbers of diesel vehicles in the next couple years in the U.S. to gauge the demand for the technology among U.S. consumers.

In the interview, Rep. Dingell reiterated a call he has made before for the federal government to pressure oil refiners to further reduce the amount of sulfur in their fuel, since sulfur clogs equipment on vehicles that is designed to reduce the amount of air pollution they cough out. He also repeated his call for the government to provide oil companies with tax breaks to defray the cost of retrofitting their refineries to produce lower-sulfur fuel.

Despite talk among some auto makers about their interest in using hydrogen- powered fuel-cell cars to improve the environment and reduce U.S. oil dependence, Rep. Dingell said in the interview that is "too far in the future."

In the meantime, he said, the industry must take stronger action to persuade consumers that it is making a real effort to improve its vehicles' fuel economy because the industry is "dependent to a great degree on public good will."

In his speech to the Detroit Economic Club, Rep. Dingell told an audience full of auto executives that he won't be able to provide them political cover forever in the fuel-economy debate.

Bush Wants To Toughen Rules

The Bush administration, responding to intensifying political pressure to reduce U.S. reliance on foreign oil, has announced it is toughening fuel-economy rules incrementally over the next few years and soliciting public comment on potential ways to rewrite the standards more significantly.

One big issue is how to address what environmentalists call the standard's " SUV loophole," which allows light trucks -- the sport-utility vehicles, pickup trucks and minivans that account for an outsized portion of the Big Three's profits -- to get worse gas mileage than passenger cars.

"There are always the prospects of CAFE changes and that's a pot that I intend to watch closely and a watched pot never boils," said Rep. Dingell, according to a prepared text of his speech released by his office.

Although Rep. Dingell intends to continue as chairman of the House committee that oversees automotive fuel economy, he said, "I won't always be here to watch that simmering pot. That leaves you two options -- you can let the pot boil over and deal with the resulting mess, which I assure you will be spectacular, or take steps now to reduce the heat. These steps should be bold, serious and visionary.

"The challenge our industry faces," the prepared text of Rep. Dingell's speech continued, "is to come up with a policy which meets our concerns, that breaks our cycle of dependency on foreign oil and does it in a way that both preserves our competitive ability and serves the broader public interest."

In his speech, he took aim at the auto industry's environmentalist critics. Rep. Dingell said polls from environmental groups that show Americans want more fuel-efficient vehicles demonstrate "that everybody wants to limit somebody's freedom of choice."

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