A New Front in the Fuel Fight

Boosting efficiency is no longer a question of whether but how.

Published: 10-Jan-2008

fall, Republican pollster Bill McInturff was surprised to find one issue uniting every segment of the U.S. electorate, from solid Republicans focused on national security to Democratic global-thinking environmentalists. All put America's dependence on foreign oil at the top of the political agenda. "An issue essentially not on the radar screen two years ago now cuts across all different segments," McInturff says.

It's a finding in repeated polls, and it goes a long way toward explaining the relentless drive to force automakers for the first time in decades to engineer better gas mileage for their fleets. Although Congress and President Bush remain at odds over energy policy, both say they want to increase the corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, standard—to 35 miles per gallon by 2020 in the favored Capitol Hill proposal. Meanwhile, in a drama that may play out through President Bush's final days, as many as 17 states, led by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, have vowed to force carmakers to improve mileage even faster.

While battles continue, the carmakers themselves say that the atmosphere is altered and that they support higher standards, even as they work to shape the details in their favor. "Certainly, there have been changes with regard to the cost of gasoline, the political situation in the Middle East, and most importantly, control of Congress," says Charles Territo, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. It "was more of a question of how the standards would be increased, not whether they'd be increased."

A major player has been the Pew Charitable Trusts, which last spring committed an unprecedented $9.5 million to a 20-month fuel economy lobbying campaign. "We felt it was an ambitious goal, but we're not interested in tilting at windmills," says Joshua Reichert, managing director of the Pew Environment Group. "It seemed a confluence of factors had created a major opportunity—the rising energy prices, the newly elected Congress with the need to demonstrate they could get things done, the broad preoccupation with national security."

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