WASHINGTON (AP) – A federal proposal to make sport utility vehicles and other light trucks more fuel efficient would not significantly reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil or clean the air, environmentalists said yesterday.

Each automaker’s fleet of light trucks – a class that includes SUVs, pickups and minivans – would have to get 22.2 miles per gallon by the 2007 model year, compared with the current requirement of 20.7 mpg, Bush administration officials said.

The 1.5 mpg increase would be phased in by half-gallon steps beginning in 2005.

The White House budget office and two federal agencies are reviewing the proposal. Officials have yet to decide on a standard, White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said.

“Any decision that is made will be made consistent with administration policy, which is that fuel economy should be improved in a way that protects lives, promotes passenger safety and also protects American jobs,” she said.

A final standard must be issued by April 1, after public comment, to give automakers time to make design changes for the 2005 model year.

Automakers say the increase would be a challenge and would depend a lot on consumer demand. The idea, however, is much less aggressive than the 35 mpg standard by 2015 offered by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and rejected by the Senate over the summer.

Automakers said such a proposal would have forced them to close plants where larger vehicles are made and build smaller cars that increase the safety risk for occupants in an accident.

Environmentalists say automakers could reach 40 mpg by 2012 for cars and light trucks by using existing technology.

“The minimal thing that they are considering is an indication of how trivial they think this issue is,” said Dan Becker of the Sierra Club. “It isn’t going to make a meaningful difference in fuel economy.”

The proposal developed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was based on information provided by automakers about their ability to increase fuel economy. The standard is called corporate average fuel economy – or CAFE – because it does not apply to every vehicle, but the average of all the vehicles that each automaker sells.

The rate for cars is 27.5 mpg. The last rate increases for trucks were between 1993 and 1996, when the government raised standards by from 20.4 miles per gallon to 20.7 miles per gallon. Congress blocked the Clinton administration from making raising the standard.

“We’re reconciled to higher CAFE standards, and these higher fuel economy standards are going to be a real challenge,” said Gloria Bergquist, spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. “Meeting federal fuel economy standards depends on what consumers buy, not what manufacturers offer for sale.”

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