WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration extended a controversial incentive on Wednesday for automakers to produce vehicles that can burn either gasoline or alternative fuels.
The program has long been popular with automakers because it helps their vehicles meet federal fuel economy standards. And the government calls it a good initiative to help reduce dependence on oil imports.
"Diversifying the fuels we use will help protect the environment while achieving greater energy independence and security for our nation," Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta said.
But environmental and consumer groups claim the incentive program is flawed and fails to provide even symbolic energy savings.
A flexible-fueled or dual-fueled vehicle is capable of operating on gasoline, diesel or an alternative like an ethanol-gasoline blend.
The incentive has been active for several years and the Transportation Department's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration extended it Wednesday for four years.
Automakers get a fuel economy credit of 1 mpg for producing flex-fueled models. Many experts agree that the number of dual-fueled models produced -- 2 million on the road today -- has helped automakers meet the federally mandated fuel economy targets.
Those regulations require passenger cars to average 27.5 mpg. Light trucks, which include SUVs, minivans and pickups, must get 20.7 mpg this year.
NO PROOF ALTERNATIVE FUELS USED
But critics claim the program is a mirage. They contend manufacturers are getting important fuel economy credits for their vehicles without proof that motorists are using alternative fuels.
In fact, David Friedman, research director of the clean-vehicles program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said virtually all dual-fueled vehicles use gasoline. This is because there are limited numbers of places around the country where motorists can fill up with ethanol blends or other alternatives.
Auto companies say it is difficult to track what is in the tanks of their dual-fueled vehicles but say they are holding up their end of the bargain.
"We think the credit extension was the right thing to do," said General Motors spokesman Chris Preuss. "We don't produce fuel. We produce vehicles. We put the vehicles out there."
Eron Shosteck, a spokesman for Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, says the industry is working with energy companies and others to improve the infrastructure for offering alternative fuels to everyday consumers.
"What we would like to see is filling stations put in more ethanol pumps," Shosteck said. He added that once motorists find it convenient to access alternative fuels then use will increase.
Tim Hurd, a spokesman for NHTSA, agreed, saying the incentive program is aimed at automakers not energy companies. "You have to have different people involved on both sides. This program is devoted to creating the vehicles," Hurd said.