Finally, Progress on Fuel Efficiency
by Jenny Coyle
When the Ford Motor Company announced at the end of July that it would
voluntarily increase the fuel efficiency of its SUVs, the Sierra Club patted itself on the
For two decades the Club has been working to get Congress to force the
auto industry to improve mileage standards for its vehicles. And Ford's statement came one
month after the Club's Global Warming Campaign was successful in working with
environmental heroes in the Senate to do just that.
After wrangling off the Senate floor with pro-industry lawmakers and their
lobbyists who wanted to block a move toward stricter mileage standards, both sides agreed
to language in the Transportation Appropriations bill calling for a study and
implementation of new standards by Oct. 2001. The study will determine the Corporate
Average Fuel Economy standards, but the law requires that they be the maximum feasibly
Raising CAFE standards from 27.5 to 45 miles per gallon for cars and from
20.7 to 34 mpg for light trucks (trucks, vans and SUVs) is the biggest single step the
nation can take to curb global warming, according to Dan Becker, director of the Club's
Global Warming Campaign.
"This is the toughest thing we could ever do," said Becker.
"It's ironic that we're getting more out of Ford voluntarily than we've been able to
get out of Congress in a decade. And Ford intends to improve fuel-efficiency in its SUVs
-which represent about one-fifth of its fleet - by 25 percent over five years, a figure
that's shockingly similar to what the Club has been demanding. We hope Ford will broaden
this promise to the other four-fifths of its vehicles as well."
Another factor in Ford's decision, Becker believes, is the Club's
successful campaign to turn SUVs into "stink-mobiles" in the public's eye.
"We've made them difficult for some people to own because they're too embarrassed to
have 'pariah on wheels' sitting in their driveway," he said. "We've changed the
Then, too, consumers know now that better mileage is possible - though
automakers have claimed the opposite. The Japanese have proved it with Honda and Toyota
and their new gas-electric hybrid vehicles, Becker said, so Ford, Chrysler and General
Motors will eventually have to follow suit.
This victory entailed more than two decades of lobbying and grassroots
action by many organizations and thousands of activists. During late 1998 and early 1999,
50,000 activists sent postcards to their senators urging them to mandate improved
fuel-efficiency and cut power-plant pollution. Then, in the spring of 1999, a coalition of
national environmental, religious and auto-safety groups urged senators to sign a
"Clean Car Letter" to President Clinton offering to work with him to raise CAFE
More progress was made when the Club garnered hoards of media attention as
it poked fun at Ford's 19-foot SUV, the Excursion, by dubbing it the "Ford
Valdez." And the effort got an unexpected boost last spring when Ford Chairman Bill
Clay Ford issued a special annual report to shareholders admitting that SUVs pollute too
much and are unsafe.
What's down the road? The House is expected to pass the Transportation
Appropriations bill this month, and once it's law, the Department of Transportation and
National Academy of Sciences will conduct a joint study of the standards, which will be
implemented after Sept. 30, 2001.
"We're working now to ensure that the NAS panel is balanced, that we
present the best evidence to it and that the study is fair," Becker said. "We
will also work with the new administration to ensure that the best possible standards get
set. The fight for clean cars is far from over, but this is the beginning of the
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