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October 11, 1999

SUV popularity lowers overall fuel efficiency

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The popularity of gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles has pushed down the average overall automobile fuel economy to its lowest level in nearly 20 years, the Environmental Protection Agency says.

An EPA report said 1999 model cars and light trucks, including SUVs, averaged 23.8 miles per gallon in government tests, compared with 25.9 mpg in 1987-88, when fuel economy fleetwide reached its peak.

Fuel economy for motor vehicles "has been consistently falling since the late 1980s" because of the growing number of light trucks, and for 1999 models, it declined to about where it was in 1980, the report said.

Light trucks, which include most SUVs, minivans and pickups, are subject to less stringent fleetwide fuel economy government requirements than passenger sedans.

The report comes amid a growing controversy over whether the government should raise its fuel economy requirements for new cars and, particularly, for light trucks.

Leaders of eight major environmental groups released a letter last week to President Clinton, questioning why he plans to sign a $50 billion transportation spending bill that specifically bars changes in federal fuel economy requirements, or even studying such changes.

The ban "is the clearest example of a rider (on a spending bill) that strangles a program that promotes energy efficiency," the environmentalists complained.

A White House official, who spoke on condition of not being further identified, said Clinton will sign the bill, which Congress completed last week, because "we don't have anywhere near the votes" to sustain a veto.

Three weeks ago, 40 senators voted for a nonbinding resolution calling for a study on how best to improve the fuel economy standards, but the official said many of those senators would not support a veto of a bill that provides billions of dollars in highway funds.

The letter to Clinton was sent by leaders of the Sierra Club, U.S.PIRG, National Environmental Trust, Environmental Defense Fund, National Wildlife Federation, Natural Resources Defense Council, Union of Concerned Scientists, and Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Some environmentalists also complained that the EPA should have released its report sooner so it could have been used in congressional debate.

EPA spokesman David Cohen said the report shows the impact of the popularity of SUVs on overall fuel economy of new vehicle fleets.

It said the average fuel economy for new 1999 passenger cars was 28.1 mpg, but the average for light trucks, including SUVs and minivans, was 20.3 mpg. As a result, overall fuel economy for passenger vehicles was 23.8 mpg, the lowest since 1980 and six-tenths of a mile per gallon lower than in 1998.

The increased market share of light trucks, which now account for 46 percent of all new vehicles sold, "is the primary reason for the decline in fuel economy," said the EPA report.

Gloria Bergquist of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said the decline in fleetwide fuel economy is understandable.

"Gas is cheap and the economy is good," she said. "So while consumers care about fuel economy, other things become more important such as utility, cargo space, passenger space and vehicle comfort."

The government requires new passenger cars to meet a 27.5 mpg fleet average, and new light trucks a 20.5 mpg fleet average. Manufacturers face fines if the fleet average is not met unless they have credits from past years when they exceeded the standard.

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