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Patrick Springer, Published June 19 2007

N.D. senators now support bill provision

North Dakota’s two U.S. senators for years have opposed increasing automobile fuel economy standards – until now.

Sens. Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan support a provision in the energy bill now before the Senate to boost gas-mileage standards about

40 percent, to an average of

35 miles per gallon, by 2020.

The requirement also has the support of Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., also supports increasing fuel economy standards.

Dorgan and Conrad said this standard would not “take your pickup away,” as radio ads backed by the auto industry have suggested.

The proposed standards would require efficiency gains for eight categories of vehicles.

“We’re not measuring pickups against small compacts here,” Dorgan said.

Because North Dakotans use twice as much gasoline per capita as New Yorkers, they will benefit twice as much from the greater fuel economy, he said. “These issues are twice as important to us as they are for a New Yorker,” he said.

North Dakota motorists, stung by gas prices routinely above $3, now see fuel efficiency as an important pocketbook issue, in addition to helping reduce dependency on foreign oil and curbing greenhouse gases, the senators said.

“It is the most rapid change in public opinion I’ve seen in my almost 30 years of public service,” Conrad said.

“It’s very dramatic.”

He said he recently spoke to one woman from western North Dakota who pays $800 a month for gas bills because she has a long work commute.

Klobuchar said the higher standards are necessary to prod Detroit into making more fuel-efficient cars.

“Basically our gas mileage standards haven’t changed for over 20 years,” she said.

Increasing the mileage standards to an average of 35 miles per gallon – up from the current 25 miles for cars – would save a family of four more than $800 a year, Klobuchar said.

“I look at this first of all as a middle-class issue,” she said.

An amendment to the energy bill Coleman pushed would reduce dependency on foreign oil by directing the administration to reduce oil consumption by 2.5 million barrels a day by 2016 – the amount currently imported from the Middle East.

U.S. dependence on foreign oil would be reduced 35 percent by 2030, Coleman said. The amendment passed earlier this week by a vote of 63 to 30, reflecting broad, bipartisan support.

“That was very, very positive,” Coleman said.

On the other hand, he added, the overall fate of the energy bill remains unclear in the face of intense lobbying from competing interests among industry and environmental groups.

“I’m not sure what will happen to this bill,” Coleman said. “Overall it’s not clear that we’ll be able to find the bipartisan” coalition needed to pass major energy legislation.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522