Lawmakers likely to preserve status quo; gas-guzzler awareness movement grows
By Jeff Plungis / Detroit News Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- In the U.S. Senate next month, there will be another debate about whether to mandate more fuel-efficient cars and trucks.
There is not a lot of suspense about the outcome in what has become a stale annual ritual. After a few days of rehashing decades-old arguments, a bipartisan majority of lawmakers, looking out for the interests of automakers and auto workers, will vote to keep the status quo.
But outside the capital beltway and the confines of Metro Detroit, there are growing attempts to raise awareness that the vehicles Americans drive have an impact on the environment. The war in Iraq has helped renew interest in weaning the country from foreign oil. At the same time, there is a populist backlash against government attempts to legislate or regulate the kinds of cars in people's driveways.
Celebrities are funding ad campaigns targeting gas-guzzling SUVs and arriving at the Oscars in hybrid Toyota Priuses. Nuns are using shareholder resolutions to push General Motors Corp. to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A minister is touring the South talking to Baptist congregations about the type of vehicle Jesus would drive. Environmentalists are "ticketing" SUVs in New England and California, claiming their drivers are violating the earth.
Meanwhile, conservative talk-show hosts, led by Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, have stepped up defenses of SUVs and warn about the government regulating people's vehicle choices. SUV owners are taking to the Web to rebut environmental groups. There's even a group called the SUV Owners of America.
It remains to be seen how it will all shake out, but one thing is clear: fuel economy is no longer a private parlor game for auto lobbyists and Washington's lawmakers.
"These issues are leaking out into the public," said Michael Flynn, director of the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan. "Were I an auto company, this is the last thing I would want to happen. It's hard to see any upside."
The Rev. Jim Ball stirred controversy last fall when he started the "What Would Jesus Drive?" campaign with a set of television ads in Detroit and other cities. Now Ball has embarked on a six-week tour of the Bible Belt to preach a gospel of moral transportation.
Ball is driving his Toyota Prius through eight southern states from Texas to Virginia. He is speaking to churches, mayors, city council members, state legislators and Christian radio stations, outlining his basic catechism on how driving a gas hog affects everyone.
"We're helping people understand their choice of vehicle relates to Jesus' message of loving thy neighbor," Ball said. "There are health consequences to driving. One out of three Americans lives in a city with unhealthy air. We're seeing an increasing threat from global warming and our dependence on foreign oil."
Ball's tour, and the controversial television ads that preceded it, have been coordinated by Fenton Communications, a prominent liberal public relations firm that also promoted Ariana Huffington's Detroit Project television ads. And if consumer groups have their way, there will be a lot more similar efforts on the horizon.
Having been stymied by the auto industry's lobbying might in Washington, groups like Public Citizen in Washington are hoping to spark more awareness about cars and the environment in average voters' minds.
There are signs that voters would like to see more efficient vehicles.
A 2002 poll by Lake Snell Perry & Associates for the Sierra Club found that, contrary to popular belief, Michigan voters favor stricter corporate average fuel economy standards. Nearly three-quarters of state voters favor stronger fuel economy requirements -- 74 percent -- and 44 percent strongly favor the idea. The support was bipartisan, with 83 percent of Democrats and 69 percent of Republicans favoring the idea.
But while Americans may prefer fuel-efficient cars in theory, when they actually spend money on purchases, they are still favoring gas guzzlers. Through May, sales of SUVs were up 7.2 percent from a year ago, according to Autodata Corp., a New Jersey-based research firm. The SUV segment is the only vehicle class that has seen a year-to-date increase. Overall, auto sales are down 2.9 percent for the year.
The trend bodes well for the SUV Owners of America. The 4-year-old group, founded by Menomenee Falls, Wis., native Bill Brouse, is trying to rebut charges that SUVs are overly inefficient or pose special risks to car drivers.
"I thought SUVs were being smeared pretty badly, and it really irked me," said Brouse, 69, the retired CEO of the Wisconsin League of Financial Institutions. "Most of the discussion was irrational, emotional and not based on fact."
Using his association experience, Brouse formed the group and set about signing up SUV owners with a Web site. But having survived for years under Brouse's sole leadership and personal checkbook, the SUV group has been handed over to Stratacomm, a major automotive public relations firm with offices in Washington and Detroit.
The group now has a revamped Web site, www.suvoa.com
, with frequent updates about the SUV debate. The group, which had about 50 dues-paying members earlier this year, is on a recruiting drive. It hopes to find SUV owners throughout the country to speak with local media on fuel economy and safety.
Global Exchange and the Rainforest Action Network are two environmental organizations that until now have focused on human rights, developing countries and global trading issues. Now, the two groups, both based in San Francisco, are zeroing in on fuel economy. They are targeting Ford Motor Co. because they contend Ford broke a pledge to increase SUV fuel efficiency 25 percent by 2004.
Jason D. Mark, spokesman for Global Exchange, said the group zeroed in on Ford shortly after the war in Iraq, because of the obvious connection between oil and national security.
The groups want Ford to increase average fuel efficiency of its vehicles to 50 mpg by 2010 and to produce only zero-emissions cars, like those powered by hydrogen-fed fuel cells, by 2020.
"We want to reduce the incentives for international conflicts," Mark said. "Oil is a destabilizing factor."
Making it personal
Others see the issue in more personal terms.
Stan Bishop, a 37-year-old small-business owner in Atlanta, said the anti-SUV crowd is really just jealous of a status symbol. It is the very essence of America to be able to drive the biggest, most powerful vehicle one can afford, Bishop said.
Bishop launched a Web site, suvlove.com, soon after Ariana Huffington's Detroit Project launched television ads implying SUV owners were unwittingly helping terrorists by driving gas guzzlers. The Web site is filled with logs of testimonials about SUVs and messages for critics.
"The anti-SUV thing really comes down to class warfare," Bishop said. "It's an excuse to pick on people who are doing well."
To be sure, automotive experts question whether either side in this grass roots debate will do any better than Congress in resolving the issues.
"They have no real understanding of the complexity of these problems," said David Cole, director of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor. "You can wish something, but just because you wish it doesn't mean it's true. The impact of these groups has essentially been zero. Congress is not going to violate the basic laws of politics and economics."
Brouse of SUV Owners of America said he'll be trying to keep the government out of the fuel economy debate.
"Any time any level of government gets a foot in the door and attempts to regulate, you've got to be wary and fearful," he said.