What Could Have Been, What Could Still Be
by John Byrne Barry
Instead of starting by describing another missed opportunity by Congress to raise fuel economy standards —not that I have an opinion on that —I thought I’d get personal instead and talk about my car.
It’s a 1985 Honda Civic wagon with almost 150,000 miles on it. It’s reliable and I don’t drive much and I’m a cheapskate, but I’m tired of it and I thought it might be nice to get something a wee bit newer. I mean, I’ve got no air bags, no power steering, not even cup holders. I still have to use one of those old fashioned keys you insert into door and turn.
I went to the Sierra Club’s “I Want My MPG” fuel calculator, which allows you to find out how much you’d save on gas for your car model if fuel economy were modernized. But other than hybrids, practically the only cars that get better mileage than my 21-year-old Honda Civic are newer Honda Civics.
Actually, the average new car sold in the United States today does get 28 miles per gallon, about what I get with my car, but the average new vehicle sold today gets worse mileage than a new car or truck sold in 1982. That’s practically criminal.
(If the electronics industry progressed at that same glacial pace, we’d still all be using floppy disks and listening to music on record players.)
It didn’t have to be this way.
Sixteen years ago, after a concerted campaign by the Sierra Club and our allies, Congress came within a handful of votes of adopting fuel economy standards of 40 miles per gallon. As our executive director, Carl Pope, says in his blog, “Had we won that vote, the world would be different today: America would be using about half as much gas as it currently does.” He also suggests that the United States would
have embraced the Kyoto Protocols on curbing global warming because “it would have been easy to meet our emissions targets,” and may not have embarked on risky military adventures in the Persian Gulf. (See "The Road Not Taken.")
But this spring, it seemed like that moment was coming around again, and that Congress and/or President Bush were about to take meaningful action to raise fuel economy standards. The time was ripe, with gas prices climbing above $3 a gallon and the buzz about global warming turning into a national conversation.
It didn’t happen.
Representatives Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) introduced a bipartisan amendment to raise fuel economy standards to a combined 33 miles per gallon highway and city, but the House Energy Committee refused to adopt it.
Meanwhile, President Bush, who has been expanding presidential power in other domains, called on Congress to give him power to increase the fuel economy standards on cars. But as Dan Becker, director of the Club’s global warming program, says, “Like Dorothy in Oz, the president has had this authority all along but refused to use it.”
In 1975, when Congress first enacted Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, it set passenger standards at 27.5 miles per gallon. The statute also gave the Department of Transportation authority to raise passenger car standards beyond 27.5 mpg in future years, subject to disapproval by either house of Congress. Since then, however, the Supreme Court has ruled that this type of one- chamber “legislative veto” is unconstitutional. This means the administration retains the authority to raise CAFE standards without approval from Congress.
This past March, the Bush administration announced slightly higher fuel economy standards for light trucks. Emphasis on slightly. By the administration’s own admission, this adjustment will save only two weeks of oil by 2011.
But along with this increase came a restructuring of the rules that replaced the existing fleetwide standard with a size-based system, providing a perverse incentive for automakers to build bigger vehicles to qualify for weaker fuel economy standards. This could actually decrease fuel economy from its already low present level.
In response to these CAFE changes, on May 23, the Sierra Club and 10 states and several other environmental groups sued the Bush administration, claiming that the new standards are illegal because they set standards below the technically and economically feasible level.
Pat Gallagher, director of the Club’s Environmental Law Program, says, “They underestimated the technologies and ignored important benefits, such as the ability to significantly reduce our global warming emissions.”
Congress squandered an opportunity 16 years ago and earlier this spring, but here comes another chance. We’ve got the technology on the shelf to make all new vehicles average 40 miles per gallon within ten years. That could save the average driver more than $5,000 over the vehicle’s lifetime (and that’s after accounting for the added costs of the fuel-saving technology). And it could also save 4 million barrels of oil a day—an amount equal to what the United States currently imports from the Persian Gulf and could ever get out of the Arctic Refuge, combined.
Whether Congress seizes this opportunity or perpetuates our oil addiction could depend on how much noise the environmental community makes. Of course, it’s an election year, gas prices are hovering around $3 per gallon, and it could be a long, hot summer.
In the meantime, the Sierra Club is calling on automakers to use current technology to make all their cars, SUVs, and light trucks go farther on a gallon gas. To sign a petition to the automakers, and to find out how much you could save if CAFE standards were modernized, go to the Club’s “I Want My MPG” site.
As for replacing my old car, maybe I’d be better off splurging on a new lightweight bicycle. Looks like the best way to keep my emissions down is to leave the car at at the curb.
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