Campaign Slams U.S. Automakers For Gas Guzzlers

By J.R. Pegg

May 7, 2003 (ENS) - Environmentalists turned up the heat on U.S. automakers today for stalling on fuel economy and contributing to the nation's dependence on foreign oil.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Detroit Project say U.S. automakers and their political allies are determined to fight off any fuel economy increases, even though the technology exists to raise the fuel efficiency of cars and sport utility vehicles to 40 miles per gallon (mpg).

"Detroit has been fighting safety and fuel economy standards for 30 years, all the while promising voluntary solutions that never arrive," said John Adams, president of NRDC. "It is time for sensible standards that put existing technology on the road in every car, truck and SUV."

NRDC and the Detroit Project debuted a new ad campaign today blasting Detroit for dragging its feet on fuel economy - a delay they say is harming the American economy, national security and environment.

The ad features a 40 mpg SUV that the groups say Detroit could build if it wanted to.

If U.S. vehicles averaged 40 mpg, according to NRDC, the nation would save more oil than it imports from the Middle East. Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that U.S. fuel economy reached a 22 year low of 20.4 mpg in 2002. Tahoe

SUVs are not held to the same fuel economy standards applied to passenger cars. (Photo courtesy Chevrolet))
"Whether you were for or against the war in Iraq, we can all agree that it is time to make sure our military and economic strength are never held captive to the policies of petroleum, said Arianna Huffington, a nationally syndicated columnist and cofounder of The Detroit Project.

But the battle to force Detroit to improve fuel economy is at best an uphill one.

Last week a Senate panel rejected a proposal to raise corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards for cars and light trucks to 30 mpg by 2011.

CAFE standards require automakers to meet a sales-weighted fuel economy level for the fleets of new cars and light trucks sold each year - it is 27.5 mpg for cars and 20.7 mpg for light trucks, which include SUVs, minivans and pickups.

The Bush administration's decision to raise the standard for light trucks by 1.5 mpg over the next three years was blasted by environmentalists as too small, but is being challenged by automakers as too large.

U.S. automakers contend that the increases in fuel efficiency environmentalists want could only be reached by compromises in safety, performance and cost consumers would reject.

"SUV owners, like all automobile consumers, would love better fuel economy," said Jason Vines, president of the SUV Owners of America, an organization dedicated to fighting for the rights of SUV owners. "But they don't want the tradeoffs."

Yet there is little evidence that higher fuel economy correlates to less safety, and supporters of higher standards say any increased costs upfront are more than covered over time by the need to purchase less fuel.

It is politics and power that are holding back development of more fuel efficient vehicles, not technology, Huffington said.

"We have the technology to start fixing the problem, but the Big Three and their friends in Congress and the White House are blocking the road," said Huffington. huffington

Syndicated columnist Arianna Huffington has become a vocal critic of U.S. automakers for not developing more fuel efficient vehicles. (Photo courtesy the Detroit Project)
U.S. automakers have spent $80 million in federal campaign contributions since 1990 and some $37 million on lobbying last year alone, Huffington said, and have allies with "access and power who can undermine the political process at every step."

The failure to increase fuel standards is "public policy made in an insane asylum, bought and paid for by automakers," Huffington said.

The deck is stacked in favor of gas guzzling SUVs, she said, with lower pollution and safety standards, as well as favorable tax breaks for the largest of vehicles.

SUVs, which on average consume one third more fuel than cars and now make up half of all vehicles sold annually in the United States. They are more polluting as well, in particular because some 90 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles are due to fuel consumption.

Even so, Americans are clearly taken with SUVs and the environmental groups say Detroit is missing a golden opportunity to dominate the market for more efficient SUVs. They note that Japanese automakers are moving aggressively to develop more fuel efficient and less polluting models.

Toyota, for example, plans a hybrid SUV by next year and expects to sell 300,000 a year worldwide by 2005.

By contrast, Ford recently abandoned a highly publicized pledge to increase the efficiency of its SUVs by 25 percent and scaled back its plans for a more fuel efficient hybrid SUV.

It is the market that drove its decision, according to Ford, and the company still plans to introduce a hybrid SUV by the end of the year.

U.S. automakers and the Bush administration are touting the emergence of hydrogen fuel cells, a concept many environmentalists believe is a good long term solution. But NRDC calculates that a 40 mpg fuel economy standard would save nearly 25 times more oil by 2020 than even the most aggressive fuel cell launch.

"We have the technology right now to kick our oil addiction," said Adams. "This would mean more money in our pockets, more jobs in our economy, and more freedom for America to stand tall in the world."

The ad will begin airing in Detroit, Washington, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, Philadelphia, and Tampa-St. Petersburg this week. NRDC said the groups will spend some $300,000 on the ad campaign.