“Our goal is to save fuel, not endanger jobs.” -Mary Peters, U.S. Transportation Secretary
So, the Department of Transportation (DOT) officially gave the green light (pun intended) yesterday to new fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks. The question we need to figure out is, will these new standards actually help reduce the consumption of oil by our nation? And frankly, with oil now costing $117 per barrel, is it already too late?
The DOT‘s new rules call for fuel efficiency standards for both passenger vehicles and light trucks to increase by 4.5% per year over the five-year period ending in 2015 - a 25% percent total improvement that exceeds the 3.3% baseline proposed by Congress last year.
(Chevy Suburbans like this one are covered by the new rules ... when they go into effect that is. Photo courtesy of GM).
“This proposal is historically ambitious, yet achievable,” Mary Peters, U.S. Transportation Secretary, said in a speech yesterday. “It will help us all breathe a little easier by reducing tailpipe emissions, cutting fuel consumption and making driving a little more affordable.”
For passenger cars, the proposal would increase fuel economy from the current 27.5 miles per gallon to 35.7 miles per gallon by 2015. For light trucks, the proposal calls for increases from 23.5 miles per gallon in 2010 to 28.6 miles per gallon in 2015.
All told, the DOT said its proposal should save nearly 55 billion gallons of fuel and a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions estimated at 521 million metric tons. The plan should also save American drivers over $100 billion in fuel costs over the lifetime of the vehicles covered by the rule, Secretary Peters said.
(Will these new fuel efficiency rules reduce trips to the filling station? That remains to be seen.)
Is it enough? Many don‘t think so - though it should be noted that the voices giving the thumbs down to these new standards, such as Ralph Nader‘s advocacy group Public Citizen, opposed them from their very inception.
“The problem is that the nation is addicted to foreign oil, and transportation is one of the biggest reasons why,” commented Public Citizen last year as these new rules were in development. “This problem is simply much too big to be left up to the individual purchasing decisions of consumers, many of whom live in parts of the country in which they have no choice but to drive every day to go to work or the supermarket.”
The group noted that the federal government established the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) program precisely because the market without any fuel economy requirement left the nation dangerously dependent on foreign oil. In fact, as CAFE standards have been allowed to stagnate for the past 20 years, that problem has duplicated itself: Manufacturers have chewed up fuel efficiency gains with larger engines, increased vehicle weight and many extras instead of applying them to increase fuel economy, said Public Citizen.
“Instead of taking advantage of technologies that could make vehicles more fuel-efficient, automakers have allowed those technologies to gather dust on the shelf and have produced gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles (SUVs),” the group stressed. “Automakers aggressively marketed SUVs to the American public ... and U.S. auto manufacturers have focused a greater proportion of their production on the light-truck sector than the Japanese and European manufacturers and have recently extended a long-standing practice of giving consumers discounts, rebates and preferential loan rates in exchange for buying vehicles whose utility exceeds their needs.”
Now, there is some truth in all of this - in fact, much as I disagree with many of Public Citizen‘s stances on a variety of issues, they hit this one close to the bone. Back in the 1990s, Toyota and Honda were feverishly working on hybrid cars in their labs, while the “Big Three” (General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler) sat back and watched the money roll in from their highly profitable truck products - making as much as 50% profit on each vehicle sold.
Hey, gas hovered around 90 cents a gallon back in 1999, and everyone projected that fuel would stay at that bargain-basement price for years to come. Just the way housing prices would keep going up 20% a year, Internet companies were a sure-fire investment, and Enron‘s accounting practices conformed to accepted standards.
So here we are - finally!! - addressing fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks. Yet this is still just a proposal, now - it must go through the rulemaking process, which takes years. Meanwhile, gasoline costs an average of $3.60 a gallon across the country, with diesel spiking to $4.21 per gallon. These new standards are like over a decade too late, if you ask me.
Then again, it‘s better than nothing. DOT noted that, as required by Congress, the proposed rule allows for automakers to earn credits for exceeding CAFÉ standards - serving as an incentive to exceed these goals while giving manufacturers flexibility to meet the standards without compromising their economic vitality. “The goal is to save fuel, not endanger jobs,” Secretary Peters said.
(Alternative fuels such as hydrogen -- as demonstrated here by President Bush -- can't come to market soon enough with gasoline and diesel pump prices as high as they are.)
“Looking at the fuel-efficient technologies already available, it‘s easy to see a not-too-distant future when cars fueled by something other than gasoline will be readily available and affordable,” she added. “Until that time, however, we will continue to do what we can, safely and efficiently, to improve gas mileage and help consumers spend less time and less money at the pump.”
Don‘t know about you, but I think that empty feeling in my wallet is going to be around for a long, long time to come.