WASHINGTON - Car companies, still trying to shake their reputation as environmental naysayers, plan to offer a positive-sounding alternative to raising fuel economy standards before Congress acts on the issue again this year.
They just don't know yet what that alternative will be.
Industry executives long have viewed higher gasoline taxes as a simple way to get motorists to conserve. But Jo Cooper, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, doesn't think the idea 'is sellable (politically) at this point in time.'
Instead, she said, a committee of technical and public policy experts from the alliance's member companies will consider other options to raising the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard.
The current standard is 27.5 mpg for cars and 20.7 mpg for light trucks. It was raised from 26.5 mpg for cars in model year 1990 and from 20.6 mpg for trucks in the 1996 model year.
Automakers were caught off guard last year by the intensity of the congressional debate over ending a four-year-old CAFE freeze. Ultimately the freeze was extended another year but only after industry lobbyists argued vigorously, and sometimes awkwardly, against greater fuel efficiency.
'The companies really believe that fuel economy is a priority,' Cooper said. 'It's that we don't think the CAFE program is a workable program.'
Mike Stanton, the alliance vice president of government affairs and a leader of the search for an alternative, said he doesn't want to prejudge the group's decision. But he suggested that tax credits for fuel-efficient vehicles are one possibility.
The Clinton administration proposed tax credits for ultra-efficient, advanced-technology vehicles in each of its last two budgets, but they went nowhere in Congress, in part because of lukewarm industry support.
Dan Becker, director of energy and global warming for the Sierra Club in Washington, said he's skeptical of the industry plan for a CAFE alternative. But he added, 'Hope springs eternal.'
The alliance, formed one year ago to represent the former Big 3 and now eight overseas-based companies, had as one founding principle that it would seek positive solutions to environmental and safety problems.