PONTIAC, MI – This is the last place in the U.S. that Senators John Kerry and Fritz Hollings would want to be.

A standing-room-only crowd comprised of Michigan politicians, General Motors Corp. executives and United Auto Workers union members gathered here Feb. 25 at GM’s Pontiac East Silverado/Sierra pickup assembly plant and thoroughly blasted the bill proposed by Kerry and Fritz that calls for a new corporate average fuel economy standard of 35 mpg (6.7L/100 km) for cars and light trucks by 2013. Current CAFE mandates light truck fleets average 20.7 mpg (11L/100 km) and cars 27.5 mpg (8.5L/100 km).

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The crowd, carrying picket signs reading “Save Our Jobs, Save Our Trucks,” wildly cheered comments by Sen. Carl Levin, UAW Vice President Dick Shoemaker and GM’s Guy Briggs, vice president-Vehicle Manufacturing, who claim increased CAFE standards would cripple the nation’s economy while providing few environmental benefits. “The coalition that we have here today cannot only help us defeat a bad CAFE proposal in Washington, it can help us move forward in a new approach – protecting the environment and preserving manufacturing jobs,” says Levin.

The U.S. Senate is expected to begin debate on the Kerry-Hollings bill, which was introduced Feb. 8, later this week. GM also organized similar rallies Monday in Toledo, OH, and Janesville, WI. If the proposal to increase CAFE standards is approved, GM and its supporters argue it would force the Big Three auto makers to build vehicles – specifically small cars – that many U.S. consumers don’t want. Sales of high-volume fullsize trucks, with fat profit margins, would be massively scaled back and hundreds of thousands of workers would be laid off.

“The UAW strongly opposes the Kerry-Hollings bill,” says Shoemaker, who urged union members to immediately contact their elected representatives. “It would result in the loss of thousands upon thousands of good paying jobs with good benefits. To make matters worse, we all know that there aren’t enough good paying jobs in America.”

CAFE opponents say the Kerry-Hollings bill asks auto makers to improve fuel efficiency too quickly. They also label CAFE as discriminatory. Levin cites fuel economy figures for GM’s Silverado, Yukon, S-10 and TrailBlazer that indicate the vehicles provide better gas mileage than Toyota Motor Corp.’s competitive offerings (Tundra, Land Cruiser, Tacoma and 4Runner, respectively). “The issue here is not whether the foreign competition is more fuel efficient. It is not,” Levin says. “The problem is the CAFE system discriminates against American products. Our cars are going to be restricted by this new CAFE proposal, while the foreign competition – slightly less fuel efficient – is unconstrained.”

Shoemaker cites data that the Kerry-Hollings bill would require the U.S. Big Three to increase fleet fuel economy by 40%-50% compared to a 15% increase for Honda Motor Co. Ltd. He also notes studies by the National Academies of Sciences that find deficiencies in CAFE and recommend a less dramatic fuel economy increase than the Kerry-Hollings proposal.

CAFE was created in 1975 following the fuel shortages earlier that decade with the goal of making the U.S. less dependent on foreign oil. But even CAFE supporters would have a hard time arguing that objective has been achieved. “What Congress should do is encourage greater implementation of innovation and technology through customer incentives, including tax credits for advanced technology vehicles,” says Briggs. “Advanced technology will let us save fuel and protect the environment while, very importantly, we keep the nation working and growing. While technology is the answer for the future, we also have an obligation to focus on the present.”