They are intrepid: Navigator, Explorer, Expedition, Blazer. They are virile and exotic: Bronco, Cherokee, Laredo, Tahoe. They are your friends: Amigo. They are even, on occasion, honest about themselves: Suburban.

SUVs are huge and getting huger by the model year. One need not pore over market statistics (SUVs now represent about 20 percent of the automobile market, compared with 2 percent in 1980) to know that these behemoths are Blazing, Exploring, and Navigating a path to the mall and the local Starbucks in alarming numbers.

We will leave the cultural significance of this trend aside for the moment (this being an environmental column, after all) and focus instead on the political debate in Washington and a report released this week by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

As Congress prepares to debate fuel-efficiency standards, UCS scientists believe they have a found a way to build a cleaner-burning, more efficient SUV. The “UCS Exemplar,” described at a news conference in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, would produce one-fourth the pollution of the popular Ford Explorer and use 50 percent less gas, at only a slightly higher production cost, according to Jason Mark, senior transportation analyst for UCS.

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Essentially, the report argues, implementing stricter new fuel economy standards for SUVs (and other light trucks and vans) will not place an undue burden on Detroit automakers.

“Basically, the point is, you can have your SUV and drive it too,” Mark told Muckraker.

However, it does not appear likely that the current freeze on changes to Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards is likely to thaw anytime soon. For the fourth year in a row, a rider forbidding changes to the current standards is firmly attached to the Transportation Department appropriations bill, which recently passed the House and is awaiting action in the Senate.

Despite a letter to Pres. Clinton signed by 32 senators urging the administration to ratchet up pressure on the issue (preferably in the form of a veto threat), one House appropriations committee source said there haven’t been “any rumblings” about dropping the CAFE rider in conference with the Senate.

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Nonetheless, the group of senators in favor of changing the standards will offer a freestanding “sense of the Senate” resolution next week criticizing the rider.

They will be aided by the Sierra Club, which just announced a series of radio ads encouraging senatorial support for the “Clean Car Resolution.” The ads will run in Maine, New Hampshire, North Dakota, and South Dakota.

Mr. Smith Goes … Somewhere

Political Washington was shaken to its core (well, not exactly) when Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.) announced this week his decision to bolt the Republican party and perhaps continue his quixotic presidential campaign as a member of the U.S. Taxpayers Party or Ross Perot’s (and Jesse Ventura’s) Reform Party.

The Smith factor might not mean much in GOP presidential politics (he never registered more than a blip in the polls), but it could mean a great deal to the enviro community. Smith currently chairs the Senate Superfund subcommittee and is a major player on the full Environment and Public Works Committee.

While threats to strip Smith of his seniority were tossed around, it now appears unlikely that will happen. However, should he be stripped (or elected president!), Smith would be knocked out of contention for the top slot in the full Senate enviro committee when current Chair John Chafee (R-R.I.) retires next year. This would likely put Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) in line for the chair, although a committee source warns that it is “way too early” for that kind of speculation.

As for the Superfund subcommittee, it is unclear who might take over for Smith. The chairmanship is based on seniority within the GOP conference and several members of the subcommittee (like John Warner of Virginia) already hold (or will eventually hold) high-level posts on other committees.

Another problem for enviros could be Ohio Rep. John Kasich‘s decision to both drop his GOP presidential bid and quit the House entirely next year. While often unable to get actual results, Kasich was willing to work with green groups on a number of issues.

Gawain Kripke, director of economic campaigns at Friends of the Earth, called Kasich a “green in brown clothing,” and credited him with having an open mind, particularly on cutting corporate welfare.

“He was at least in his heart sympathetic,” Kripke said, although “that sympathy didn’t always extend too deeply into his chairmanship of the Budget Committee.”

Kasich admirers shouldn’t fret too much, however, as he may well stay in Washington after retiring from the House … as budget director in a George W. Bush administration.

News Roundup

We hear that Ralph Nader is less than thrilled with the notion of a presidential candidacy by professional gadfly Michael Moore under the Green Party banner. Moore’s name has been floated several times as a possible Green candidate. Nader was the Green party nominee in 1996, but did not mount a very serious effort. … The Los Angeles Times uncorked a big report this week on George W. Bush’s fundraising prowess during his two gubernatorial campaigns. Not suprisingly, Bush pulled down nearly $3.7 million from energy and mining companies, which might help explain (though the campaign of course says it doesn’t) Bush’s support of bills in the Texas legislature to keep emissions standards on older industrial plants voluntary (see Muckraker, 06.02.99).