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Backward to the Future

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Oblivious to headlines about oil prices, energy security and global warming, the White House this week quietly proposed a new fuel economy scheme that not only reaffirms this administration's staunch commitment to lousy gas mileage standards, but also tries to handcuff any future administration that might actually be interested in reducing our oil dependence.

It is a shameless bid to ensure the White House is forever haunted by the ghosts of Dick Cheney and his Energy Task Force.

The proposal falls on the heels of parallel lawsuits filed earlier this month by 10 state Attorneys General and conservation groups including NRDC -- challenging the weak fuel economy performance standards for SUVs, minivans and pickups recently adopted by the administration.

On June 2, President Bush will meet with CEOs of the Big Three US automakers. They will doubtless discuss challenges facing an industry that has announced posted billions in losses and tens of thousands of permanent layoffs.

Unfortunately, everyone involved seems hell bent to ignore the real problem.

For years Detroit and Washington have collaborated to stop the progress the country had been making on fuel economy following the oil crises of the 1970s and early 80s. So successful were they that despite technological gains, the average mileage of new cars and trucks topped out in 1988, before plummeting to post-embargo lows in recent years.

Some believe this helps Detroit fend off Honda and Toyota. But in fact, soft standards on fuel economy performance are doing the auto industry far more harm than good.

Motor City management bet the farm on a business model built on gas guzzlers, and rode it straight to the bottom. The ones paying the price are the employees who landed in the street after two years of rising gas prices sent demand for Hummers, Durangos and Explorers tumbling.

The farther these companies fall behind in the technology race, the harder it will be to catch up. When engineers at Ford set about designing a hybrid version of the Escape SUV, they discovered that Toyota had already patented key innovations. As a result, Ford wound up paying a license fee to use the technology.

It wasn't that the American engineers couldn't solve the problem; it's that their bosses waited way too long to set them working on it.

If we're serious about reviving American automobile manufacturing, we have to get serious about meeting the needs of a marketplace that experts say will continue to be defined by high oil prices.
One good place to start is the bi-partisan legislation that is gaining steam in both the House and the Senate that would set a concrete national oil savings target of 2.5 million barrels per day, and provide automakers with new incentives to retool themselves for a cleaner, more energy-efficient future.

The Vehicle and Fuel Choices for American Security Act also doubles our investment in biofuels made from crops that can be grown here at home. It has 72 cosponsors in the House, two thirds of them Republicans. The list of more than 20 Senate sponsors runs the gamut from Democrats John Kerry (MA) and Blanche Lincoln (AR) Republicans Sam Brownback (KS) and Richard Lugar (IN).

Couple legislation like that with sensible fuel economy performance standards, and we will be well on our way to breaking our oil addiction. Ignore these opportunities, and the auto industry as well as our economy at large will continue paying a steep price for our dependence.