Gas pains from SUVs

The environmental costs of the federal government’s lenient gas-consumption standards for pickups, minivans and sports utility vehicles continue to mount, contends a report released last week.

While the Environmental Protection Agency grapples with the issue of emission standards, one gas not covered – carbon dioxide – is receiving increased attention as a greenhouse gas that compounds concerns over global warming.

The way to reduce carbon dioxide is to cut down on the amount of gasoline vehicles burn. The problem is that light trucks continue to gain in popularity but are subjected to a more lenient gas-consumption standard. The consequence, according to a report released last week by the Public Interest Research Group, is an additional 187 million tons of "global warming pollution" being released into the atmosphere each year.

While most passenger vehicles must meet Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards of 27.5 miles per gallon, Congress, under heavy pressure from the auto industry, has managed to freeze requirements for pickups and sport utility vehicles (SUVs) at 20.7 mpg. With these vehicles now accounting for nearly 45 percent of the passenger cars sold, they are emitting a disproportionate share of carbon dioxide.

"Sport utility vehicles and other light trucks don’t have to be gas guzzlers," says Jim Burch of PIRG in Michigan. "It’s time for automakers to stop taking advantage of the fuel economy loophole and make SUVs go farther on a gallon of gas."

Automakers and legislators such as Michigan senators Carl Levin and Spencer Abraham argue that tougher CAFE standards would give an advantage to foreign vehicles, which tend to have smaller engines that consume less gas, and that automakers would be forced to produce vehicles that are out of sync with American consumers.

Proponents of tougher standards – including a group of 31 U.S. senators who recently signed a letter urging President Clinton to veto legislation that continues the freeze – say they will have a net economic benefit.

According to PIRG, a consumer advocacy and environmental group based in Washington, D.C., benefits include more than a reduction in greenhouse gas. Its report contends that tougher CAFE standards for light trucks will result in consumers saving more than $13 billion per year at the gas pump and cut gasoline consumption by 336 million barrels per year.