With transportation gobbling over 60% of America’s oil consumption, it defies reason for the senate to reject higher fuel economy standards for light trucks less than two months after voting overwhelmingly to save a million barrels of oil a day by 2013, the ALLIANCE TO SAVE ENERGY said on Tuesday.

The alliance is a coalition of business, government, environmental, and consumer leaders who promote the efficient use of energy worldwide to benefit consumers, the environment, economy, and national security.

In mid-June, the senate adopted the oil-saving amendment to its energy bill by a landmark vote of 99-1. The measure directs the president to save at least one million barrels of oil a day by 2013.

Yet on Tuesday, the senate voted 32-65 against an amendment by Senator Richard Durbin (a Democrat from Illinois) to increase fuel economy standards to 40 miles per gallon by 2015.

“The senate has taken an unfortunate wrong turn on the road to a balanced and sensible national energy policy, which should be built on a foundation of energy efficiency,” Alliance to Save Energy acting co-president Mark Hopkins said.

“This amendment would have compelled automakers to take the available technologies off the shelf and put them into our cars and light trucks,” Hopkins said. “In a turn for the worse, senators then supported, 66-30, an amendment by senators. Carl Levin (Democrat, Michigan) and Christopher Bond (Republican, Missouri) which fails to require any update in the antiquated fuel economy standards, now at a 23-year low.

“When will Detroit give ‘soccer moms’ a fuel-efficient SUV?” Hopkins asked.

In fact, according to The Detroit News, the Levin-Bond amendment would give regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration 30 months to issue new Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards.

The paper said that Levin argued that law makers lacked the expertise to pick a fair fuel economy target. Regulators would be directed to carefully assess new technology, car makers’ product plans, the potential impact on the economy and automotive safety, Levin reportedly said, taking politics out of the process.

“We direct NHTSA to raise CAFE standards, but we do not set the number,” Levin said, according to the Detroit News. “We lay out the criteria we want them to consider.”

According to the paper, when debating the amendement, Durbin said federal regulators had failed to mandate significant fuel economy increases without congressional prodding, and as a result the US fleet has become less efficient.

Durbin reportedly dismissed his opponents’ arguments that stiffer fuel economy rules would cost jobs if car makers have to sell fewer light trucks and close factories, and result in more highway deaths because vehicles would have to be lighter to meet the tougher standard. He said the vehicle industry made the same charges during congressional debates in the 1970s, when the CAFE programme was established, the Detroit News added.

“If they had had their way, we would all be driving cars that get 14 miles per gallon,” Durbin reportedly said. “I believe America can do better. American automakers and workers can rise to the challenge.”

The Detroit News noted that the Levin-Bond legislation would also allocate $US50 million to the Department of Energy to research and develop petrol-electric hybrid technology and would also direct the department to accelerate efforts to increase the viability of clean diesel engines. The plan in addition calls for the federal government to purchase fuel-efficient hybrids and alternative fuel vehicles for its fleets, the paper added.

The Detroit News said the senate is still expected to vote on one more CAFE amendment offered by Senator Dianne Feinstein (Democrat, California), possibly on Wednesday, whih would require SUVs and other light trucks to achieve the same fuel economy standard as cars, 27.5 mpg.

The Detroit News noted that Levin’s proposed changes to CAFE ultimately depend on the energy bill becoming law, and that the senate energy bill still faces many hurdles.

Senators will debate contentious amendments on global warming, power plant pollution and electricity deregulation later this week and, after passing the bill, will have to negotiate with the House of Representatives, which passed a competing energy plan earlier this year, the paper added, noting that, last year, the two chambers failed to reconcile their differences on competing energy bills.

This year, however, the Detroit News said, both bodies are ruled by Republicans, and President Bush is making completion of the plan a major legislative priority.