WASHINGTON (AP) -- The next generation of new cars and trucks will need to meet a fleet average of 31.6 miles per gallon by 2015, the Bush administration proposed Tuesday, seeking more fuel-efficient vehicles in the face of high gasoline prices and concerns over global warming.
Transportation Secretary Mary Peters outlined the plan on Earth Day, setting a schedule that was more aggressive than initially expected by the auto industry. It responds to a new energy law that requires new cars and trucks, taken as a collective average, to meet 35 mpg by 2020.
"This proposal is going to help us all breathe a little easier by reducing carbon dioxide emissions from tailpipes, cutting fuel consumption and making driving a little more affordable," Peters said.
New cars and trucks will have to meet a fleet-wide average of 31.6 mpg by 2015, or about a 4.5 percent annual increase from 2011 to 2015. In 2015, passenger cars will need to achieve 35.7 mpg and trucks will need to reach 28.6 mpg.
The rules were designed to push companies to boost fuel efficiency across their entire lineup. Manufacturers will have different requirements for cars and trucks of different sizes based on vehicle sales. Collectively, the fleet of new vehicles will need to meet the rules.
Among individual manufacturers, passenger cars built in 2015 by General Motors will need to average 34.7 mpg, Ford's cars will need to reach 35.5 mpg and Toyota's cars will have to achieve 34.6 mpg.
For light trucks, GM will need to reach 27.4 mpg by 2015, while Ford will have to average 28.8 mpg and Toyota will need to hit 28 mpg.
The plan is expected to save nearly 55 billion gallons of oil and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 521 million metric tons over the life of the new vehicles built between 2011-2015. It will add an average cost of $650 per passenger car and $979 per truck by 2015.
Environmental groups and their allies in Congress, who have criticized the Bush administration's handling of the requirements, said they were mostly encouraged by the proposal.
"After years of fighting a fuel economy increase, the Bush administration is showing faith in the American auto industry's ability to reform," said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., who sought the higher standards.
Automakers opposed increases to the regulations in previous years, but supported a compromise version of the legislation in Congress. The changes would require the industry to implement more than half of the fuel-efficiency requirements by 2015 and push them to build more gas-electric hybrid cars and diesel-powered trucks and SUVs.
"Congress has set an aggressive, single, nationwide standard and automakers are prepared to meet that challenge," said Dave McCurdy, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents General Motors Corp., Toyota Motor Corp., Ford Motor Co. and others.
In keeping with the new law, however, automakers will continue to receive a 1.2 mpg credit for producing flexible fuel vehicles which run on ethanol blends, but the credit will begin phasing out in 2014. Environmental groups have called it a loophole, noting that few vehicles actually use E85 ethanol.
Jim Kliesch, a senior engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, gave mixed reviews to the plan, arguing that the first three years would push the industry, but the following two years would only seek modest increases. "The proposal starts off at full speed, but then puts on the brakes," he said.
Congress sought the tougher standards last year, arguing that an increase in fuel efficiency would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the nation's dependence upon imported oil. The law, the first major changes in three decades, requires the nation's fleet of new vehicles to increase its efficiency by 10 mpg from its current average of 25 mpg, or a 40 percent increase.
The fleet of new passenger cars is currently required to meet a 27.5 mpg average, while sport utility vehicles, pickup trucks and vans must hit a target of 22.5 mpg. Among the current fleet, passenger cars average about 31.3 mpg while light trucks get about 23.1 mpg.
The Bush administration has opposed attempts by California and other states to implement a strict program to reduce vehicle tailpipe emissions. Peters said the federal plan would reduce fuel consumption "in a way that is consistent nationwide and also doesn't compromise vehicle safety."
Buried inside the 417-page proposal is a section that would prevent states, such as California, from regulating tailpipe fuel economy standards.
California Attorney General Jerry Brown said the provisions were a "covert assault" on his state's efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He vowed to "fight it every step of the way and we will sue them if necessary."
Brown said the "pre-emption" language in the plan ignored rulings by the Supreme Court and two federal district courts that said the federal gas mileage standards were separate from state greenhouse gas regulations.
The plan is expected to be finalized by the end of President Bush's term in office.
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