On Friday, the White House took another step towards increasing the efficiency of American vehicles and offering support for electric-drive vehicles. Is it a coincidence that this new drive for vehicle efficiency comes as the impact of the Gulf oil spill reaches disastrous proportions? No way.
“The disaster in the Gulf only underscores that even as we pursue domestic production to reduce our reliance on imported oil, our long-term security depends on the development of alternative sources of fuel and new transportation technologies,” the president said.
What specific actions did the President take? First, he signed a Presidential Memorandum to the EPA and Department of Transportation instructing them to draft a policy to increase fuel efficiency for medium and heavy-duty trucks. The standards would mark the first time that large commercial trucks will have to meet national fuel economy targets. Combine these new rules for trucks, with a 35.5 MPG fuel efficiency target for cars and trucks by 2016 already on the books—plus the President’s push for even higher standards from 2017 – 2025—and you can see small glimmers of a genuine effort by the Obama administration to make a dent in the nation’s addiction to oil.
Mixed Messages on Drilling
President Obama also called on the Energy Department to expand incentives for electric cars. Currently there is a tax credit of between $2,500 and $7,500 for buying an electric car, and $4,000 for converting a hybrid to a plug-in hybrid. These credits are scheduled to phase out after an automaker builds 200,000 battery-electric cars, and after Dec. 31, 2011 for plug-in hybrid conversions. Without these incentives in place for at least several years, the electric car movement would be slow and uncertain.
Forget for a moment that the Obama administration refuses to rule out the expansion of offshore drilling. Many have speculated that the President’s decision to open up most of the Eastern seaboard to petroleum exploration didn’t so much signify a change of heart on the issue as a concession to the oil industry and its supporters. That concession might be a politically expedient move to counterbalance the President’s push for automotive alternatives—especially when part of the blame is pointed at the administration for allowing the spill to continue day after day. The question is how far President Obama is willing to go to support a real change in energy policy.
Not far enough, according to a number of pundits. David Roberts in Grist writes that Obama’s “flaccid response” has been “one of the most baffling things about the BP Gulf oil disaster.” Thomas Friedman in the New York Times is calling on Obama to use the oil spill as an opportunity for a “big strategy to end our oil addiction.” And Elizabeth Kobert, writing in the New Yorker, believes “Obama should return to the Gulf and, against the backdrop of the grotesque orange slick, explain to the public why he wants more ambitious legislation. Then he should spend the summer working to get an energy bill passed.”
If Obama follows this advice, then the day when consumers have a vast array of choices for affordable, practical and even stylish cars that run on little or no petroleum could be closer than ever.
And the devastation to the Gulf’s environment and economy will go down in history as the crisis that served as the catalyst for long overdue change.