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Energy Security, With One Pen Stroke

In his 2007 State of the Union address, President Bush outlined his plan to raise fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks—echoing his call from the previous year’s speech to curb the nation’s “addiction to oil.” But the President failed to take the single most effective and immediate step to reduce the nation’s petroleum use: to set specific fuel efficiency targets for all cars and trucks.

From one year to the next, the Bush administration has made little progress in helping the country reduce its use of petroleum. In March 2006, the Bush administration did raise CAFE (corporate average fuel economy), when it moderately increased fuel economy levels for light trucks, SUVs and minivans—based on a new patchwork of multi-tiered standards according to vehicle weight. The new rules are expected to yield an estimated average mileage for new light trucks of 24 mpg by the 2011 model year.

Prior to the slight increase in efficiency standards for light trucks, President Bush had called on Congress to give him the power to increase fuel economy standards. Dan Becker, director the Sierra Club’s global warming program, said, “Like Dorothy in Oz, the president has had this authority all along but refused to use it.”

Dangerous Momentum

CAFE standards were enacted in response to the 1973-1974 Arab oil embargo. It took a severe shortage of oil (gas rationing), and a major geo-political event, to move Americans to greater efficiency. The auto industry responded. The enactment of fuel economy standards in 1975 resulted in a near doubling of cars’ average fuel economy, measured in miles per gallon. Light trucks have increased by more than 50 percent. As a result, the United States saves more than 55 billion gallons of fuel annually.

Fuel economy standards have not significantly changed in 20 years (through Republican and Democratic administrations alike).

With rising awareness of the dangers of oil dependence, and related environmental and economic impacts, Congress is beginning to put pressure on the administration to take action. For example, in early January, Republican Sen. Ted Stevens urged automakers to reach 40 miles per gallon by 2017, a considerable increase over the current standard of 27.5 mpg for passenger vehicles. Democratic Sen. Barack Obama introduced his own legislation to raise fuel economy standards. “The onus should no longer be on the public to prove why higher fuel economy standards are necessary—it should be on our government to prove why they are not,” Obama wrote.

Auto industry leaders are worried. General Motors Vice-Chairman Bob Lutz told the Detroit News, “There is a dangerous amount of momentum” in Congress behind tougher fuel economy regulations. “And we are about out of technology to get us there.”

The Deadlock

Claims from auto industry lobbyists that they lack the technology to improve fuel efficiency—and other well-known arguments for and against increases in CAFE—are being re-examined, in the light of the recent flurry of legislative proposals to address energy security and global warming.

CAFE reduces vehicle safety: The downsizing of vehicles in the 1970s and 1980s has reportedly cost thousands of lives per year.
Response: When measured by fatalities per mile driven, car safety has improved substantially over the past 30 years. Safety is a product of design, not weight.

CAFE means job losses: Raising CAFE standards will increase the cost of producing vehicles, costing Detroit billions of dollars and thousands of jobs.
Response: Unless we shift to greater efficiency and new technologies, American car companies and their employees will fail to compete with more fuel-efficient Japanese cars. If we continue to do nothing, U.S. oil import cost will create severe consequences to all sectors of the American job force.

CAFE is an environmental washout: Consumers paying less per-mile end up driving more. Therefore, higher fuel economy standards result in more congestion and pollution.
Response: People don’t drive more simply because they are saving a few dollars per tank.

CAFE reduces consumer choice: Driving a gas-guzzling SUV is an American right. Hands off consumer choice.
Response: Threats to our economy, security, and environment require decisive action. Technology for greater fuel efficiency is ready, and common-sense governmental guidelines are needed to ensure that carmakers help us avoid another energy crisis.

The decades-old CAFE debate continues—while Americans continue to consume ever greater amounts of petroleum. Yet, the stalemate on the fuel economy of American cars and trucks could be resolved with one stroke of the president’s pen.