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September 2007

Potential fuel economy legislation reviewed
by Irwin Rapoport Write the Author

With the Congress soon to resume their sessions, discussions on fuel economy standards are expected to begin in earnest.

For its part, the Senate passed a bill on CAFE (Corporate and Fuel Economy) that requires a 35 miles-per-gallon (MPG) average by 2020, legislation that combines passenger vehicles and trucks.

In the House, two competing amendments to the energy bill were introduced. Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA) essentially mirrored the Senate bill, calling for 35 MPG by 2018, while the Hill-Terry amendment sought between 32 and 35 MPG by 2022, with provisions that offered more flexibility based on the technology being available to achieve those goals.

In the end, both amendments were withdrawn and the House energy bill passed without CAFE included.

“Congressman John Dingle (D-MI), who co-sponsored the Hill-Terry amendments, has announced that CAFE will be taken up as part of the greenhouse gas bill in the House,” says Al Weverstad, General Motors Corporation’s (GM) executive director on environment and energy policy. “Both the House and Senate bills have to go to conference, and who knows what will come out of there.”

According to Weverstad, one of the major problems with the Senate bill is that it combines cars and trucks in the formation of a single standard.

“Even if they would reform CAFE,” he says, “it would require a front-wheel drive Pontiac G6 to get essentially the same fuel economy, even though they are designed for totally different purposes, with a Chevrolet Trailblazer. The Trailblazer will never be able to get the same fuel economy as G6 because it is a heavier vehicle, has bigger wheels and tires that carry a bigger load, has a different ground clearance so that it can be used off-road, and has all-wheel and four-wheel drives.

“We are absolutely trying to improve the fuel economy on our vehicles – it is a great selling point,” he adds, “but we can’t make a vehicle that has five or six times the carrying capacity get the same fuel economy.”

GM and other automakers back the Hill-Terry provisions and have sent representatives to Washington, D.C. to speak with Congressional leaders and government officials about their concerns.

“GM and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, along with the United Auto Workers, all supported the Hill-Terry proposal, which is very aggressive,” says Weverstad, who notes that he has not heard of any compromises being discussed by House and Senate legislators.

Interviewed recently on the PBS Newshour just prior to the August recess and the vote on the House energy bill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi explained why the House bill did not address fuel economy standards.

“That is in the Senate bill,” she says, “and so, in the interest of having consensus, we decided that, since it’s in the Senate bill, there was no need to have that debate in the House. So let me say that the bill that we will put forth tomorrow will reduce emissions by more than all of the cars in America emit in one year. It is a radical, different change. “This is a departure from the status quo,” she adds. “This is about asserting energy independence, which is a national security issue, which is an environmental issue, which is an energy issue, and an economic issue for America’s families and for our economy.

We’re proud of the bill. We’ll take it up in conference, and we’ll have more bills to address this later. But since that was an area of consulate in our own caucus, and since it was already in the Senate bill, I thought it wasn’t necessary. I support the Senate language very strongly.”

Pelosi also denied any conflict between herself and Dingell.

“It’s not that,” she says. “It’s just when the Senate voted it, it no longer necessitated our doing it in the House. We put many more things in the bill that are not in the Senate bill, and we’ll go to conference and hopefully come out with a most powerful, no pun intended, energy independence bill possible.”

Developing fuel efficient vehicles, says Weverstad, is no easy task and that all stakeholders have a role to play in the process.

“The federal government talked about the four percent per year increase in fuel economy and estimated the cost to be over $100 billion, most of which will be bourn by the domestic auto industry,” he says. “That is a lot of money and I’m not sure that consumers are willing to pay for these technologies.

“We have six million E85 compatible vehicles and we have less than 1,500 stations available for them to fuel up,” he adds. It’s awful, but it’s one of the things we can use help on from other stakeholders to make E85 ethanol really a viable alternative fuel option. We can also build fuel cell vehicles, but unless there is a hydrogen infrastructure and a place to get hydrogen fuel into the car, the vehicle will become a piece of art.”

Concerning energy independence initiatives, Weverstad said fuel cell vehicles could be “a great solution to our problems.”

This month, GM will begin delivering the first of more than 100 fuel cell vehicles to families and individuals to drive and evaluate as part of its Project Driveway.

“It’s a real no-compromise fuel cell vehicle that will be in an Equinox body,” says Weverstad. “It has a 200 mile range, with its only exhaust being water vapor.”

Most of the vehicles will be tested in California, with the remainder being sent to New York State and Washington, D.C.

California has 15 hydrogen fueling stations and another 15 stations are planned for the state in the near future.

“Because of the lack of infrastructure, we’re building some mobile re-fueling stations so that the consumers who will be driving them, won’t be put out,” says Weverstad.

The majority of the nation’s hydrogen supply is created via natural gas.

“They are looking for the most cost-effective ways for the volumes needed,” says Weverstad. “We hope that there are others who will do it in the most efficient and environmentally benign way possible.”