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Political battles over passenger CAFE standards heating up

Two weeks ago, President Bush and Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta asked Congress to give the President and the Department of Transportation more legal authority to raise the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) mileage standards on passenger vehicles. One the one hand, this seems like a good idea: higher standards mean more miles per gallon, which means less gas is used which turns out to be good for just about everyone, as well as better for the environment. Of course, anything that involves politicians, automobile manufacturers and the environment is not going to be simple. Today, AutoblogGreen presents a little primer on the ongoing political battle over CAFE standards.

Read the full story after the jump CAFE standards were created in 1975 not long after the Oil Shock created by the 1973-74 Arab Oil Embargo. The current CAFE standard that applies to passenger vehicles is 27.5 mpg, but this doesn't mean every car a manufacturer sells has to have at least 27.5 mpg. Instead, CAFÉ cares about the average fuel economy of "a manufacturer's fleet of passenger cars or light trucks with a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) of 8,500 lbs. or less, manufactured for sale in the United States, for any given model year. Fuel economy is defined as the average mileage traveled by an automobile per gallon of gasoline (or equivalent amount of other fuel) consumed as measured in accordance with the testing and evaluation protocol set forth by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)."

In effect, add up all the cars a company sells in a year and figure out the miles per gallon for the entire fleet. This is the number that currently has to be over 27.5, which is also the CAFE standard set for 1985. The standard fluctuated between then and 1990, but there has never been a CAFE standard for passenger cars higher than 27.5. This might change soon, and this is what the fight is about.

The Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for figuring out the mpg rating for new vehicles, but only tests about 30 percent of new models and relies on manufacturers for data on the cars they do not test. The EPA found that the average mpg rating for 2005 model year cars was 28.9.  President Bush already has the power to raise CAFE standards for trucks, as reported in this Detroit Free Press article. In the article, Mineta is quoted as saying that simply raising the standards under the current CAFE system "would increase fatalities on America's highways, raise health care costs and reduce employment. As a result, the administration would oppose any increase in passenger car CAFE standards without corresponding reform."

Indeed, the White House is against the current CAFE system, calling it "unsafe and unfair" and wants more control over the way the system is changed in the future.

Last week, the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers (AIAM) said it would support Mineta's request, according to Energy Efficient Motorsport. AIAM member companies, of course, make the most fuel-efficient passenger cars on the American market, with hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight (even though Honda only sells about 100 Insights a month, no one offers a car with a better EPA mileage rating) topping the mileage rating lists.

Not everyone agrees that Mineta's request to give President Bush more power over CAFE standards is in the best interest in of drivers or the environment. Mineta used the phrase "sound science" to describe the "administrative process" that needed to be done before any decision will be made. Iris Kuo, writing for Knight Ridder, shows that "sound science" is a sort of generic catchphrase politicians and corporations use when they want to cast doubt on whatever issue is at hand, whether that be CAFE standards or global warming or genetically modified crops.

The CAFE standards story will be in the news as gas prices continue to rise and the November election begins to take more shape. AutoblogGreen will keep following the many twists and turns it's sure to take.

[Sources: EEMS, Mercury News, the Detroit Free Press, the White House]

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