Battle Shapes Up over Fuel Efficiency; NEW EMISSIONS RULE State Panel Approves New Measures Similar to California

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Byline: STEVE PATTERSON

TALLAHASSEE -- A campaign to make new Florida cars more fuel-efficient -- and more costly -- was launched toward the Legislature on Tuesday when a regulatory board endorsed new emissions rules backed by Gov. Charlie Crist, but opposed by auto interests and others.

The decision by the Environmental Regulation Commission positions the state to copy rules developed in California to control greenhouse gas emissions.

The change would take effect in 2012 for 2013 model cars and light pickups, but will only happen if the Legislature approves the measure when it meets in the spring.

Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Sole said no lawmakers have been tapped to champion the emissions change, but argued it should be a simple choice.

"This rule saves the consumer money. This rule is good for Florida's environment. This rule helps Florida's and the nation's energy security," Sole said. "Why would you not vote for it?"

But House Speaker Ray Sansom said in an e-mailed statement Tuesday that lawmakers are "very cautious about imposing any requirements that increase the costs paid by Floridians -- and limit their choices."

Senate President Jeff Atwater is focused on organizing committee leadership and "doesn't want to predetermine" what the measure's fate should be, Senate press secretary Jaryn Emhof said.

Many business interests oppose the new standards, citing fallout from what they say would be significantly higher sticker prices.

"The economy, we know, is in the dumper. This industry is hurting," said Ken Plante, a lobbyist and former state senator representing JM Family Enterprises, a major Toyota distributor with port operations are in Jacksonville.

He said the car dealers expect the higher car prices would cause some consumers to keep their existing cars longer.

"Why would you jump in and pass something when you don't know what the impact's going to be?" Plante asked commissioners.

A Department of Environmental Protection report this fall concluded that the rules could cause sticker costs on some new vehicles to rise from $100 to $700. But consumers would save that much on lower gasoline consumption within one to three years, the agency said, and a typical consumer's long-term savings would range from $1,000 to $2,300.

The auto industry suggested costs for some vehicle models could rise from $2,000 to $9,000 and said no one was really certain.

Representatives from the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the recreational boating industry and others warned the commission the rule could hurt financially.

"If this rule is adopted, my understanding is the trucks will be hard to get and cost us more," said George Hackney, who uses pickup trucks at the small tree nursery he owns near Quincy.

He told commissioners his company has to meet some regulations that competitors in Georgia and Alabama don't have. He said he fears that trucks such as the Ford F-150 that are essential to his business would fail the new standards.

Sole said later that two eight-cylinder versions of the F-150's 2009 model already meet the new standards.

The emissions change is part of a sweeping plan Crist initiated last year to address concerns about climate change, which widely is attributed to mounting levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. …