WASHINGTON - Federal fuel economy standards are not rising overnight, but conditions are riper now than in many years for an overhaul of the government's role in curbing car and truck energy consumption.
Automakers proved that point last week when they decided to stop asking Congress to keep the fuel economy standards, known as CAFE, frozen at 27.5 mpg for cars and 20.7 mpg for trucks.
The freeze has been a principal lobbying goal of the industry since 1995 and was successfully attached to federal budget bills for six consecutive years. During that time automakers, especially the Big 3, dramatically expanded sales of high-profit but fuel-thirsty light trucks.
Now, 'what we are trying to do is be constructively engaged on a broader energy policy,' said Gloria Bergquist, vice president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, representing 13 automakers.
The alliance's executive committee made the unanimous decision to drop the freeze effort last week.
But automakers still believe 'there are better ways to reduce fuel consumption than CAFE,' Bergquist said. The alliance supports tax credits for buyers of vehicles that use advanced technology, such as hybrid powertrains, to boost fuel efficiency.
Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club's global warming program, said the industry's change of position on CAFE is 'welcome news,' but it may not mean much with President Bush in the White House.
'The president has the power to raise the standards. If the president does not want to use that power, then you don't need a freeze,' Becker said.
Others suggested the industry's lobbying tactic had simply run its course.
'The times have changed,' said Tim MacCarthy, president of the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers. AIAM also opposes CAFE but had not lobbied for the freeze.
Some veteran automotive lobbyists said the industry, now with fewer friends in Congress, didn't want to use all of its resources on a possibly losing effort to extend the freeze, especially since the effort looks bad to an environmentally conscious public.
If no changes are made in the CAFE law by Oct. 1, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would be free to begin making rules to raise the standards.