WASHINGTON - Senate Democrats want to put a cap on the petroleum consumed by the nation's cars and trucks, effective in 2008. To meet the cap, fuel economy of new vehicles would be raised through agreements by government and automakers.
The proposals, which surprised carmakers, are part of a national energy policy last week introduced by Democratic lawmakers as an alternative to GOP plans. Republicans emphasize boosting energy production.
The California electricity shortage is the immediate crisis prompting government action. But the Democrats' legislation makes it clear that motor vehicles are going to be a big part of the upcoming congressional energy debate - and that the debate finally is going to move beyond corporate average fuel economy standards, called CAFE. They have been frozen at 27.5 mpg for cars and 20.7 mpg for light trucks for six years.
'The effect of the proposal is to increase fuel efficiency by more than just closing this light-truck loophole that many of us have been concerned about,' said Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico. He is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and principal author of the proposals.
Bingaman wants the Department of Transportation to negotiate agreements with the industry on how to improve new vehicle fuel economy. A deal could be done industrywide, as in Europe, or company by company, Senate Staff Economist Shirley Neff said.
The agreements could use a range of energy-saving mechanisms, including new fuel economy standards, tax incentives for fuel-efficient vehicles, new gas-guzzler taxes and other programs.
The fuel-saving targets would be determined by the overall cap on petroleum consumption. Beginning in 2008, the permanent cap would be 105 percent of the petroleum consumed by cars and trucks in 2000.
In other words, government and industry would look at the fuel consumption of the existing fleet and the expected increases in miles traveled to calculate the fuel economy needed in new vehicles to meet the cap, Neff said.
Gloria Bergquist, vice president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said the Democrats' plan is flawed, like CAFE, because 'it cuts consumers out of the equation.' She said fuel-efficient vehicles are available now, but few people buy them.