WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration approved a modest increase Thursday in fuel economy for sport utility vehicles and small trucks, beginning with the 2005 model year, administration sources said.
The change is the first since 1996, when Congress imposed a freeze on the federal fuel economy requirements on automakers.
The Transportation Department will require fuel economy for SUVs, pickup trucks and minivans to increase by about 1.5 miles per gallon over three years beginning with the model 2005 vehicles that arrive in showrooms in late 2004, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Automakers currently must meet a fleet average fuel economy of 20.7 mpg for the "light truck" category that includes SUVs, minivans and pickups.
The federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, for other passenger vehicles will remain at 27.5 miles per gallon, where it has been since 1990.
The final rule mirrors a proposal sent to the White House for review last month by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a Transportation Department agency that administers the program.
Spokesmen for the automakers said a 1.5 mpg boost in the fleet average was "a significant increase" and a "daunting" challenge if producers are to continue to provide customers with a wide range of SUVs, including the larger models.
"Achieving this standard depends on consumers buying our fuel-efficient vehicles in large numbers," said Gloria Briquets, a spokeswoman for the Auto Alliance, which represents the major manufacturers.
But environmentalists scoffed at the increase.
"It's a minuscule number compared to what's needed and what's technically achievable," said Daniel Becker, a fuel economy expert at the Sierra Club.
Overall passenger fuel economy has been at a standstill -- in fact retreating in recent years -- largely because of the growing popularity of SUVs, minivans and pickups that are subject to less stringent fuel economy requirements.
Passenger vehicles use about 40 percent of the 19 million barrels of oil consumed in the United States each day, and they produce about a fifth of the carbon dioxide linked to climate change.
Earlier this year, the Senate debated stiff increases in automobile fuel economy. A proposal offered by Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz., would have required overall vehicle fuel economy to go to 35 mpg by 2015, but that was defeated.
Automakers contended such an increase would force them to sell nothing but small cars and SUVs and require a shutdown of some manufacturing plants. The Bush administration also strongly opposed the Kerry-McCain proposal.