Energy bill still on tap for Congress, but without CAFE

Congressional fallout
Issues likely sidetracked by terrorist attacks

  • Tax credits for fuel-efficient vehicles

  • Climate change policy

  • Patients' rights to include suing employers

    Issues with more promise for action:

  • Presidential trade deal-making power

  • National energy policy, but without CAFE

  • WASHINGTON - To many who make and influence policy here, the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 magnify the need to cut fuel use and reduce U.S. reliance on oil from the Middle East.

    But chances have diminished that Congress will act soon on Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, or CAFE.

    Instead, Washington lobbyists and Capitol Hill sources say, lawmakers support defense and anti-terrorism measures, legislation to boost the economy, and spending bills to keep the government running.

    Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said comprehensive energy legislation is critical to national security and economic well-being.

    But congressional leaders want to avoid contentious issues; senators have been sharply divided on fuel economy standards.

    CAFE overshadowed

    Bingaman said responsibility for CAFE belongs to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee - the panel probing aviation issues raised by the attacks. So, it apparently can't deal with CAFE soon.

    Instead, Bingaman plans to have his committee complete work on a comprehensive energy bill in October. Aimed at increasing supplies and promoting conservation, it will have provisions - other than CAFE - to curtail fuel use by motor vehicles, committee spokesman Bill Wicker said last week. The chances for full Senate action are uncertain.

    But that doesn't mean CAFE is off the congressional radar screen.

    If an energy bill makes it to the Senate floor, one or more proponents of higher CAFE still could try to add a provision to the bill.

    If that happens, the World Trade Center and Pentagon disasters will make it harder for CAFE opponents to argue against greater fuel economy, said David Greene, a fellow at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and member of the National Academy of Sciences' panel that in July said higher CAFE is feasible - at a cost.

    "If it's perceived as a matter of national security, you really can't argue as well" against higher CAFE, Greene said.

    A job for NHTSA

    The job of deciding whether CAFE standards should be raised likely will fall to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The agency is required by law to set truck CAFE at the highest practical level. It also has the power to set car CAFE standards. A six-year congressional ban on NHTSA's consideration of CAFE is scheduled to expire Sunday, Sept. 30.

    The turn of events would be a victory for automakers. In trying to head off a congressionally mandated CAFE increase, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers argued the job of setting CAFE belongs to NHTSA.

    "This is not the way we wanted to get our way," said Alliance Vice President Gloria Bergquist.

    She and others said that uncertainty surrounds congressional plans for the year.

    "The whole landscape has changed on Capitol Hill right now," Bergquist said.

    Ana Lopes, director of public affairs for the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association, said of lawmakers, "They are really going to stay focused on intelligence and security concerns as well as the rescue and recovery operations."

    -- Plastics News staff writer Rhoda Miel contributed to this report

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