Green America: Growing the Green Economy for People and the Planet

US Fuel Economy Laws Are Out of Date
September 19, 2006

TrafficWith oil-rich Iran positioning itself as the nemesis of a sitting US president, gas prices holding at levels intolerable to American consumers, and US automakers losing market share to more efficient vehicles from overseas, one could take a look at America today and be forgiven for wondering:  Is it 2006 or 1979?

In 1979, American consumers and Congress both took action on the oil problem.    Drivers across the country began purchasing efficient Japanese cars, relatively new to the US market, to keep their fuel economy low and save money on gas.  At the same time, US lawmakers, enacting a bill passed after the first oil crisis of 1973, instituted ambitious new fuel economy standards, starting in 1978 for cars, and then in 1979 for light trucks.

The new rules, known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards set out to double the average passenger car’s fuel economy to 27.5 mpg by 1985.  In the 1980’s, the CAFE standards largely succeeded (despite pressure from the auto industry to water down the standards), but today 2006 looks a lot like 1979, with CAFE standards virtually unchanged in 27 years, and 27.5 mpg holding fast as the fuel standard for American cars.

This decades-old 27.5 mpg goal is no longer acceptable. 

Not only does the United States continue to import too much oil from politically volatile regions, but in the years since 1979, the scientific community has come to a consensus that the carbon dioxide emissions associated with our dependence on oil are hastening catastrophic climate change.  All the old problems with fossil fuels are still there, and now we know we’re cooking the planet as well.

Climate scientists from the Princeton Environmental Institute give us some goals to aim for, if we’re serious about fighting climate change.  According to their Carbon Mitigation Initiative (which makes comprehensive recommendations across a range of industries for lowering US carbon emissions), America needs to move its vehicles to an average of 40 mpg in fuel efficiency by 2010, getting to at least 60 mpg by 2050.

We can do this.

The Honda Insight, Honda Civic Hybrid, and Toyota Prius (all Japanese, in an echo of 1979) are listed by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy as the most efficient cars of 2006, and each already clears the 40 mpg hurtle.

American companies can do this too – and should, for consumers who are equally interested in protecting the environment, saving gas money, and buying American – but the car makers need a push.

This time around, it appears unlikely the push will come from Congress.  An amendment to raise average fuel economy to 33 mpg by 2016 died in the House of Representatives last year, while a similar bill, proposed by Sen. Barack Obama (D, Ill.) remains stuck in a Senate committee.  (A less ambitious bill, by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D, Calif.), proposing simply to raise the fuel economy of federally owned fleets remains similarly stuck.)

After decades of inaction at the federal level, American consumers must act on their own.

Detroit needs to hear from drivers who are fed up with buying too much expensive gasoline, while oil companies make record profits, climate change proceeds unmitigated, and the US remains hostage to foreign oil producers.  American drivers need to demand better cars from American companies, by writing letters or talking to dealerships.

Better yet, US consumers can use their pocketbooks to send this message, by purchasing only the fuel-efficient vehicles that can truly make a difference to our environmental health and national fuel security.

The benefits of raising our national average fuel economy will be many. According to data from the US Energy Information Administration, if Americans are driving vehicles that get better than 40 mpg within the decade, the annual oil savings will be greater than the amount we currently import from the Persian Gulf region each year.  This will simultaneously boost our energy security while reducing the threat of climate change – not to mention giving American consumers a break at the pump.

Together, for our health, our national security, and the health of the planet, we need to raise our fuel economy, whether Congress is on board this time or not.

--Andrew Korfhage

 

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