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Senate: Hike gas mileage standard

The energy package would also boost ethanol use. A bid to raise oil-firm taxes failed.

WASHINGTON - The Senate passed a trimmed-back energy bill yesterday that would bring higher-gas-mileage cars and SUVs into showrooms in the next decade and fill their tanks with ethanol.

The measure was approved with strong bipartisan support, 86-8, after Democrats abandoned efforts to impose billions of dollars in new taxes on the biggest oil companies. They fell one vote short of overcoming a Republican filibuster against the new taxes.

Auto companies would have to achieve an industrywide average of 35 miles per gallon for cars, small trucks and SUVs over the next 13 years, an increase of 10 m.p.g. over what the entire fleet averages today.

The bill now goes to the House, where a vote is expected next week. The White House said in a statement that President Bush would sign the measure if it reached his desk, as is expected. Bush had promised a veto if the oil-industry taxes were not removed.

The bill calls for the first major increase by Congress in 32 years in required vehicle fuel efficiency - something automakers have long fought.

The bill also would boost the use of ethanol nearly sixfold by 2022 and impose new requirements to promote efficiency in appliances, lighting and buildings.

This bill "will begin to reverse our addiction to oil," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) said. "It's a step to fight global warming."

All Philadelphia-area senators voted for the bill except Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D., Del.), who did not vote.

Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D., Hawaii), whose committee crafted the measure, said the increased fuel efficiency by 2020 would save 1.1 million barrels of oil a day, equal to half the amount now imported from the Persian Gulf; save consumers $22 billion at the pump; and reduce annual greenhouse-gas emissions by 200 million tons.

Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.), a longtime protector of the auto industry, which is extremely important to his state, called the fuel-economy measure "ambitious but achievable."

For consumers, the legislation will mean that over the next dozen years, auto companies are likely to build more diesel-powered SUVs, gas-electric hybrid cars, and vehicles that can run on 85 percent ethanol.

"Automakers can meet the new standards with today's technology," said David Friedman, research director at the Union of Concerned Scientists' Clean Vehicle Program. "Cars and trucks will be the same size and perform the same way they do today."

But they might be using a different fuel.

The legislation would require that ethanol's use as a motor fuel be ramped up 36 billion gallons a year by 2022. At least 21 billion gallons would have to be ethanol from feedstock other than corn, such as prairie grasses, switchgrass and wood chips.

About 6.5 billion gallons of ethanol was expected to be used as a gasoline additive this year, according to the Renewable Fuels Association, which represents ethanol producers.

The legislation also would increase energy-efficiency requirements for appliances and federal and commercial buildings. These requirements, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D., N.M.) said, "will eventually save more energy than all our previous energy-efficiency measures combined."

Tax breaks for a wide range of clean-energy industries - including wind, biomass, solar, and carbon capture from coal plants - were part of the tax package that was dropped. Senate Democrats also abandoned a House-passed provision that would have required investor-owned utilities nationwide to generate 15 percent of their electricity from solar, wind and other renewable sources.

While many environmentalists viewed the almost certain approval of the vehicle fuel-economy increase as a major victory, some were critical of the Democrats' inability to push through taxes on major oil companies, which have been making huge profits in recent years.

"The Senate Democrats should show some backbone," said Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth. "If Republicans want to block progress on clean energy and global warming, they should be forced to mount a real filibuster - for weeks if necessary."

Republicans had made clear that they would require the Democrats to find 60 votes on the oil taxes, and the White House had said repeatedly that the proposed $13.5 billion in taxes on the five largest oil companies over 10 years would ensure a veto.

On the 59-40 vote that failed to overcome a GOP filibuster, Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, whose state's economy is dominated by oil and energy activities, was the only Democrat to break ranks. Nine Republicans supported the tax measures.

The White House had said the taxes would lead to higher energy costs and unfairly single out the oil industry for punishment. A Democratic analysis showed that the $13.5 billion over 10 years amounted to 1.1 percent of the net profits the five largest oil companies would be expected to earn given today's oil prices.

Highlights of the Senate Bill

It requires automakers to increase

the fuel economy of cars and small trucks, including SUVs, by 40 percent, to

an industry average of 35 miles per gallon by 2020.

It mandates a sevenfold increase in the use of ethanol as a motor fuel to 36 billion gallons a year

by 2022, with 21 billion gallons to be cellulosic ethanol from such feedstock as prairie grass and wood chips.

It requires increased energy efficiency for appliances and improvements in the energy efficiency of federal and commercial buildings. It also requires faster approval of federal energy-efficiency norms.

SOURCE: Associated Press