The Bush administration yesterday raised fuel-economy standards for SUVs, minivans, and many pickup trucks — the most significant boost to efficiency requirements for the big vehicles in three decades.

Exempt no more.

Photo: iStockphoto.

Of course, as enviros have been quick to point out, that’s not saying much.

These final CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) rules, which are modestly stricter than draft rules released last August, will, beginning with the 2008 model year, ramp up standards for light trucks — a category that includes SUVs and minivans, and accounts for 55 percent of all vehicles sold in the U.S. last year. The vehicles will be divided into multiple categories based on size or “footprint,” each with its own miles-per-gallon target. The bigger the vehicles in the class, the lower the target. For example, smaller SUVs like the Jeep Wrangler will have to hit 26.4 mpg in the 2008 model year, gradually rising to 28.3 mpg in 2011, while bigger vehicles such the Chevy Silverado will have to reach 20.1 mpg in 2008 and 21.8 in 2011. The new rules will also, starting in 2011, apply to SUVs and vans that weigh between 8,500 and 10,000 pounds, such as the Hummer H2 and Chevy Suburban, which have until now been entirely exempt from fuel-economy standards.

Altogether, the rules are expected to yield an estimated average mileage for new light trucks of 24 mpg by the 2011 model year — an improvement of less than 2 miles per gallon over the 2007 standard. The current system requires each automaker to meet a single average target of 21.6 mpg for its fleet of 2006 model-year light trucks; that target will climb to 22.2 mpg for 2007.

According to the Department of Transportation, the new standards could save nearly 11 billion gallons of gasoline over the lifetime of light trucks from the 2008 to 2011 model years. That may sound like a lot, but it’s roughly equivalent to the amount of gasoline the U.S. guzzles in merely four weeks.

“It’s a bit like telling a three-pack-a-day smoker to give up one cigarette a day,” said Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club’s global-warming program.

Nevertheless, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta touted the rules as a big step forward. “The new standards represent the most ambitious fuel-economy goals for light trucks ever developed in the program’s 27-year history,” he said. “And more importantly, they close loopholes that have long plagued the current system.”

Coming of Mileage

A spokesperson for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, Charles Territo, said the new standards are “very ambitious — they will be a challenge to meet.” According to DOT figures, the rules are expected to cost automakers about $900 to $2,800 per vehicle, for an industry-wide total of roughly $6.7 billion. Still, said Territo, “Automakers want to do their part to improve national security and energy independence.”

He added that critics underestimate the fuel-economy progress that major auto companies are already making. Members of his alliance, which include Ford, General Motors, DaimlerChrysler, and Toyota, “already have more than 100 models available that get over 30 mpg, and more than 30 models of advanced-technology vehicles, including hybrid, diesel, and flexible-fuel,” he said.

Environmentalists, though, think automakers could do much more, and argue that the new system isn’t nearly ambitious enough. First, they say the standards give automakers incentive to make their trucks and SUVs larger, so they’ll get bumped into categories with looser mpg requirements.

Second, critics point out that while the scheme imposes mileage standards on all SUVs in the 8,500-to-10,000 pound range, pickup trucks in this category get off scot-free. Mineta says that’s because most of the exempted trucks are used for work. That doesn’t sway Becker, who says more than four-fifths of the vehicles weighing over 8,500 pounds are pickups. “It’s entirely misleading to say that the loophole has been closed,” Becker said. “At best, it has been slightly narrowed.”

Third, enviros contend that the rules don’t meet a key requirement of the 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act that calls for the transportation secretary to regularly update fuel-economy standards to the “maximum technically achievable” level. They say markedly stricter standards are entirely feasible. According to Becker, currently available technology — including improved engine design, smoother transmission systems, better lubricants, lower-friction tires, more sophisticated aerodynamics, and hybrid applications — “could enable Detroit to achieve a total average standard of 40 mpg by 2016 without breaking a sweat.”

In determining the maximum achievable standard, the DOT is also required to consider “economic practicability,” including the cost of fuel standards to consumers as well as producers; for consumers, that cost is directly affected by the price of gasoline. Becker notes that in the draft rules released in August, DOT projected that the price of gasoline over the lifetime of vehicles bought between 2008 and 2011 would range from $1.51 to $1.58 (not accounting for inflation); in the current rules, that projection has been bumped up to a range of $1.96 to $2.39. “How could it be that the gas-price projection has gone up about 38 percent since August, but the administration only increased their fuel-economy standards .04 percent?” Becker asked.

David Friedman, research director for the clean vehicles program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, notes that in the months since August, the U.S. has been hit with two massive hurricanes, paid higher prices at the pump, seen escalated tensions in the Middle East, and heard a pledge from the president to break America’s addiction to foreign oil. “And yet we got nothing in these final rules, nothing in the way of improvements on the miniscule change in fuel-economy standards proposed in August,” he said. “Nothing to reduce our dependence on oil or to address high fuel costs.”

The Sierra Club has not decided whether to take legal action against the administration for failing to issue the maximum achievable upgrades. “We’re still wading through the rule and determining what we will do,” Becker said.

He argues that the importance of more-rigorous fuel-economy standards can’t be overstated: “That is the biggest single step we can take to curb global warming and move toward energy independence.”