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Automakers, Congress Girding For Debate On Fuel Efficiency

WASHINGTON (AP) _ On the eve of summer and as gasoline prices soar, the auto industry is launching a $1 million radio ad campaign that challenges the push for new vehicles to get about 35 miles per gallon.

The ads, decrying ``extreme fuel economy increases,'' are part of a brewing fight in Congress over legislation that will be considered next month and could lead to more fuel-efficient vehicles.

``This is an effort by auto manufacturers to remind legislators that the industry represents 6.6 million workers nationwide and that many industries and consumers rely on a variety of vehicles to meet their needs,'' said Charles Territo, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

The ads will starting running this weekend in states with a large concentration of pickup truck and sport utility vehicle owners, including Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Idaho, Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

The group also directs people to a Web site _ _ that encourages residents to contact their members of Congress about the proposed bill.

The Senate is expected to consider increasing fuel economy standards by about 10 mpg more than the current average of about 25 mpg by 2020. The bill would also raise requirements about 4 percent a year from 2020 through 2030.

A group of Democrats who support higher fuel economy standards released a report on Thursday that estimated an average American household would spend about $2,450 a year on gas. That estimate is based on federal projections in 2007 of $2.72 for a gallon of regular gas.

Earlier this week, the average price of self-serve regular gasoline reached a record high of $3.18, an increase of more than 11 cents over the past two weeks, according to the Lundberg Survey.

If fuel efficiency standards were raised to 35 mpg, that family could save more than $500 a year on gasoline, the report said. It did not take into account the upfront costs of buying a new vehicle.

``People are thinking about their summer plans and there's a little gray cloud over those summer plans,'' said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. ``That is how much it's going to cost to get from one place to another if you're driving.''

The rules, first adopted in 1975, require passenger cars to have a fleetwide average of 27.5 mpg and have been stagnant for the past two decades despite several attempts in Congress to raise the requirements.

Environmental groups have said the bill needs to be stronger and criticized the industry for trying to avert the increases.

``This misinformation campaign is akin to a drug pusher telling people that cutting their addiction is bad for their health,'' said David Friedman of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Some automakers _ such as General Motors Corp. and DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group _ have their own Web sites that raise alternatives to the fuel economy requirements. They're also contacting dealers, retirees and workers to raise opposition to the proposal.

Automakers contend the proposal would threaten jobs and reduce the numbers of vehicles that consumers can choose.

The rising gas prices and an increased focus on climate change by the public has pushed the issue to the forefront and could drive it through Congress, said Bruce Belzowski of the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute.

``The debate seems to be more intense than it has been in the past primarily because of fuel prices continuing to rise,'' he said.
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