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Fights heat up over fuel economy

November 23, 2010
When the Senate resumes debate this month on whether to mandate more fuel-efficient cars and trucks, suspense over the outcome will largely be absent. After a few days of rehashing decades-old arguments, a bipartisan majority of lawmakers, looking out for the interests of automakers and auto workers, will vote to retain the status quo. But outside the capital beltway and the Motor City, there are growing attempts to raise awareness that the vehicles Americans drive have an impact on the environment. The war in Iraq renewed interest in weaning the country from foreign oil. At the same time, there is a populist backlash against government attempts to legislate or regulate the kinds of cars people buy. Celebrities fund ad campaigns that target gas-guzzling SUVs and arrive at the Oscars in hybrid Toyotas. Nuns use shareholder resolutions to push General Motors to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A minister launches a campaign, "What Would Jesus Drive?" that preaches a gospel of moral transportation. Meanwhile, conservative talk-show hosts, led by Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, have stepped up defenses of SUVs and warn about the government regulating people's vehicle choices. SUV owners have taken to the Web to rebut environmental groups. There's even a group called the SUV Owners of America. It remains to be seen how it all will shake out, but one thing is clear: Fuel economy no longer is a private parlor game for auto lobbyists and Washington lawmakers. There are signs that voters would like to see more fuel-efficient vehicles. The Sierra Club trumpets studies that find voters favor stronger fuel economy standards. But while Americans may prefer fuel-efficient cars in theory, their spending tells a different story. Through May, sales of SUVs were up 7.2 percent from a year ago, according to a New Jersey-based research firm. The SUV segment is the only vehicle class that has seen a year-to-date increase. Overall, auto sales are down 2.9 percent for the year. Organizations arguing for greater CAFE standards point to the war in Iraq because of the obvious connection between oil and national security. "We want to reduce the incentives for international conflicts," said Jason Mark, a spokesman for Global Exchange. "Oil is a destabilizing factor." Others see the issue in more personal terms. Stan Bishop, a 37-year-old small-business owner, said the anti-SUV crowd really is just jealous of a status symbol. It is the very essence of America, he said, to be able to drive the biggest, most powerful vehicle one can afford. "The anti-SUV thing really comes down to class warfare," Bishop said. "It's an excuse to pick on people who are doing well."