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Riding The Bill
Published on Monday, May 29, 2000 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian
Riding The Bill:
For The Last Four Years, Congress Has Prevented The DOT From Raising fFuel Economy Standards
by Ralph Nader
 
On May 19, 2000, the House passed a bill providing fiscal year 2001 funding of $55 billion for the Department of Transportation. The vote wasn't even close: 395 votes for and 13 against.

Attached to this bill was a "rider," a clause appended to a larger legislative bill, that prevents the DOT from raising fuel economy standards for passenger vehicles and light trucks. Appropriations bills that have significant support and are usually off limits for presidential vetoes are prime targets for anti-environment riders.

Since 1996, Congress – operating at the behest of the auto industry – has used riders to prevent the DOT from developing new and improved Corporate Average Fuel Economy vehicle fuel efficiency standards, as chronicled in Jack Doyle's book, Taken for a Ride. The automakers lobbied to block improvements in fuel efficiency standards before and after 1975, when Congress enacted the Energy Policy and Conservation Act.

If the auto industry had spent as much time working on more efficient engines as it spent on lobbying against greater efficiency, cars would be driving many more miles per gallon than they are today. Perhaps the $11,528,816 in political contributions the auto industry gave in 1998 helped keep Congress in check.

The last major improvement in fuel efficiency standards came in 1985, which was the year Congress mandated that passenger cars meet a 27.5 miles-per-gallon standard. Even the existing weak CAFE standards have helped reduce oil consumption and the output of global warming gases. The Union of Concerned Scientists notes that passenger vehicles and light trucks account for 20 percent of the carbon dioxide spewed into our air each year. Just imagine: each gallon of gasoline produced and burned produces 25 pounds of carbon dioxide.

These standards are, however, no longer acceptable. When Congress adopted fuel efficiency standards in 1975, there were about 133 million vehicles on the road. Today there are more than 203 million vehicles on the road. According to Center for Auto Safety director Clarence Ditlow, passenger total fuel economy hit a high of 26.2 mpg in 1987, dropped to 24.4 mpg in 1997, and in 1998 moved up slightly to 24.6 mpg. In fact, the Wall Street Journal reports that the average fuel economy of all new cars is at its lowest point since 1980.

Environmental groups have been pushing Congress to raise the CAFE standard to 45 mpg for cars and 35 mpg for light trucks.

This is a small but important step that our government needs to take if the United States wants any shred of moral authority when it talks to other countries about air quality.

Passenger cars and light trucks account for 40 percent of the oil used in the United States. Adequate miles-per-gallon standards for motor vehicles could reduce smog and alleviate some of the pollution exacerbating global warming, reduce consumption of foreign oil, and cut the trade deficit. Better standards could also save consumers money at the pump and lessen the toll air pollution takes on our health (according to several national studies, air pollution is responsible for 64,000 deaths each year). Moreover, improved vehicle fuel efficiency standards coupled with a strong commitment to renewable energy could eliminate our need to explore for oil in environmentally sensitive areas around the globe. Less oil exploration and development also means fewer offshore oil spills and fewer leaky underground storage tanks to pollute our groundwater.

The Center for Auto Safety has estimated that increasing CAFE standards for cars and light trucks by 60 percent (45 mpg for cars and 35 mpg for light trucks) by 2005 would result in a savings of three million barrels of oil each day, reduce hydrocarbon emissions by 500,000 tons, cut 140 million tons in greenhouse gas emissions each year, and, on average, save new car purchasers $3,000 in fuel costs over the life of the car. Public Citizen estimates that since 1975 the CAFE standards have saved consumers more than $30 billion annually.

Existing technology can make cars 50 percent more efficient than they are today. Honda and Toyota have developed hybrid electric cars that get more than 60 mpg. If they chose or if they were mandated to do so, U.S. automakers could deploy existing technology tomorrow to increase fuel efficiency to much higher standards than are now required.

Sierra Club's Dan Becker said, "Making vehicles go farther on a gallon of gas is the biggest single step we can take toward curbing oil consumption and global warming."

Instead of supporting tougher standards on the automakers, the Clinton administration has been content to put forward the corporate welfare-heavy Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles. The PNGV program involves oligopolistic collaboration between the Big Three and a wide range of U.S. government agencies. They are researching a "clean car" – but the automakers have no obligation to deploy any technologies developed under the PNGV.

For the auto companies, PNGV has been a perfect smoke screen behind which they can carry out their efforts to thwart mandated increases in CAFE standards. After eight years and $1 billion taxpayer dollars, the Big Three have little to show the public except that their already overflowing coffers have been bolstered by an unnecessary infusion of government funds. Given the ease with which this money came and went, taxpayers can be sure that the auto companies will be asking Uncle Sam to be Uncle Sugar and give them additional handouts.

We need to move well beyond the modest improvements in CAFE standards to truly provide people with the air quality they deserve. President Clinton can cease his passivity and tell Congress that he will veto any riders that make it impossible to increase vehicle fuel efficiency standards. The second step would be to close the loophole that allows sport-utility vehicles to avoid the same CAFE standards that cars must meet.

Copyright 2000 San Francisco Bay Guardian

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