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September 2000 Planet Main
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The Planet

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 back.

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 possible.

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 market."

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 standards.

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 end."

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