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Chicago Tribune: Obama: Make Cars More Fuel-Efficient

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Chicago Tribune: Obama: Make cars more fuel-efficient

In a frontal assault on the automobile industry, Sen. Barack Obama's call Monday for tougher fuel-economy standards and new financial incentives for hybrid cars would force a retooling of the way autos are built -- triggering a sometimes tepid response from business leaders in the Motor City.

The Illinois senator outlined a detailed energy proposal that echoes calls by other Democrats for higher fuel-efficiency standards and seeks to demonstrate he has environmental credentials as robust as those with longer voting records.

Republicans are getting in on the energy debate as well. Arizona Sen. John McCain has repeatedly called for higher fuel-efficiency standards, while former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has said it makes little sense to "arbitrarily" increase fuel-efficiency standards without increasing alternative fuels and hybrid technology.

U.S. automakers are less excited. They have long opposed tougher fuel standards, saying they would hurt jobs, safety and affordability.

Obama, speaking to the Detroit Economic Club, said his proposals would cut the nation's oil consumption by 2.5 million barrels a day by 2020 and remove 50 million cars' worth of pollution from the air. He would achieve his goals in part by targeting a 4 percent annual increase -- approximately 1 mile per gallon each year -- in fuel standards.

Tough love in Motor City

Obama billed his visit to Detroit as tough love. The applause was light at times, but the candidate pressed on, saying the nation's "oil addiction" is a threat to national security because it helps fund terrorism.

"For the sake of our security, our economy, our jobs and our planet, the age of oil must end in our time," he said.

The speech was the latest in an ongoing series Obama has delivered in an effort to allay concerns that he lacks the policy experience to be president.

During the speech, Obama acknowledged the challenges of increasing fuel-economy standards, but suggested Detroit should use the growing energy crisis to rebuild itself as a place of energy innovation.

"For years, while foreign competitors were investing in more fuel-efficient technology for their vehicles, American automakers were spending much of their time investing in bigger, faster cars," he said. "Whenever an attempt was made to raise our fuel-efficiency standards, the auto companies would lobby against it, spending millions to prevent the very reform that could've saved their industry."

Obama said America has been left behind because it has lacked the political will to require greater fuel efficiency.

"While our fuel standards haven't moved from 27.5 miles per gallon in two decades, both China and Japan have surpassed us, with Japanese cars now getting an average of 45 miles to the gallon," he said.

Cars and light trucks -- including SUVs, pickups and vans -- account for about one-fifth of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, and experts believe global warming could be mitigated through better fuel efficiency.

Senate driving legislation

While the auto industry and its allies in Congress have successfully fended off efforts to increase fuel-economy standards for decades, political momentum recently has been building for stricter rules on gas mileage. The war in Iraq has focused attention on the national security risks of dependence on foreign oil, while consumers have grown increasingly concerned about global warming and rising fuel prices.

The Senate Commerce Committee is scheduled to consider legislation this week that would raise fuel economy standards. Several longtime allies, including oil and chemical companies, have broken with the auto industry in calling for stricter fuel-efficiency rules.

Still, a spokeswoman for the trade association that represents U.S. automakers asserted that Obama's goal for fuel efficiency is "unattainable."

"If you go that high with fuel economy, something else has to give," said Gloria Bergquist, a vice president for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), both in the Senate during a 2005 energy debate, voted differently on fuel-efficiency standards. Obama backed increases, while Clinton opposed them. She voted against the bill because it had oil industry incentives, while Obama backed it in part because it included language that would raise ethanol demand.

A Clinton spokesman said the senator supports increased fuel-economy standards and that other Democrats voted the same way on the bill because of the oil industry incentives.

"Sen. Clinton was trying to improve fuel economy standards by working to get the auto industry on board with a more comprehensive effort that also addressed the worsening economic conditions affecting the car manufacturers," spokesman Phil Singer said. "Unfortunately, the auto industry did not join that effort."

Democratic candidates have generally backed stricter fuel-economy standards. In fact, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards has pressed for a faster timetable than Obama, saying manufacturers should be required to meet a goal of producing vehicles that average 40 m.p.g by 2016.

Even the Bush administration now favors stricter fuel economy standards, having proposed a 4 percent increase in gas mileage for each of the next 10 years.

But the administration would give the White House control of the process through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which could delay rules over economic and safety concerns.

Auto group rejects 35 m.p.g.

After decades of opposing increases in fuel-economy standards, the auto industry has softened its stand, saying it would agree to a level that is "technically feasible" without specifying a number. "We think it should be based on objective criteria and not politically attractive numbers," said Bergquist of the automakers alliance. She called the 35 m.p.g. standard advocated by Obama "unattainable" because consumers have largely rejected small, efficient vehicles in the past.

But Eli Hopson, a representative of the Union of Concerned Scientists' clean vehicle program, said, "What's good for America is good for Detroit," and higher standards would force automakers to make their larger vehicles more efficient.

Saying he was not indifferent to the economic pains the industry is suffering, Obama promised help for automakers. His plan would encourage them to make fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles by using tax dollars to help cover retirees' health costs.

Domestic automakers would get that assistance in exchange for investing 50 percent of the savings into technology to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles. In addition, Obama's proposal would provide companies with generous tax incentives for retooling assembly plants.


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