abril 04, 2006

Fueling Our Addiction

Daniel Becker
April 04, 2006

Daniel Becker is the director of the Sierra Club's Global Warming program.

The final fuel economy standards released last week by the Bush administration fail to break America's oil addiction. Higher fuel economy and good jobs come from using better technology. By failing to require Detroit to make significantly cleaner, more efficient vehicles to compete with Toyota, the Bush administration is giving the Big Three enough rope to hang themselves.

The Bush administration ignored the opportunity and obligation to cut America's oil dependence by requiring automakers to use modern fuel-saving technology to reduce oil consumption, curb global warming pollution and save consumers money at the gas pump. While the new standards do finally include the largest SUVs, they fail to include the largest pickup trucks, which constitute 80 percent of the largest vehicles on the road. Instead of weak standards, the Bush administration should be putting American innovation to work by requiring automakers make all of their vehicles—from sedans, to SUVs, to pickup trucks—go farther on a gallon of gas.

The technology exists today to make all vehicles average 40 miles per gallon within 10 years. Taking this step would save more oil than the United States currently imports from the entire Persian Gulf and could ever get out of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, combined. As a result, the average driver would save over $2,200 at the gas pump over the lifetime of their vehicle and U.S. global warming pollution would be reduced by close to 600 million tons.

President George W. Bush says America is addicted to oil, but this new standard is like telling a two pack-a-day smoker to cut out one cigarette. The new standard will for the first time include large SUVs and vans—between 8,500-10,000 pounds gross vehicle weight—as part of the automakers' light truck fleet. As a result, automakers will need to ensure that their light-truck fleet average meets the fuel economy standards—also known as CAFÉ standards—even with these low fuel economy vehicles added to the mix. However, 80 percent of the vehicles in that weight class are pick-up trucks—not SUVs, and thus will remain exempt from any fuel economy standards. Because the administration continues to exclude heavy pickup trucks and is only including a handful of the heaviest gas guzzlers, the resulting oil savings from including these vehicles are minimal. Using the administration's estimate of oil savings, today's rule will save less than two weeks worth of oil consumption at current levels over the next four years.

In 1975, Congress directed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to set new light truck fuel economy standards for each new model year at the "maximum technically feasible level." With today's technology, that maximum level is at least a 40 miles per gallon average for all cars, trucks and SUVs. Last year, the administration released the proposed light truck fuel economy standards for model years 2008-2011—made final last week. In its proposal, the administration proposed an increase of just 1.8 miles per gallon over four years. At the same time, the new proposal abandoned the concept of a fleet-wide fuel economy standard. Instead, it created a new size-based system that divides the current light truck fleet. While the original proposal created six size classes, the final rule released last week replaces these size "bins" with a separate bin for each size vehicle.

This means that there will be a separate fuel economy standard for every size of light truck. A size-based system can create a perverse incentive, encouraging automakers to build larger vehicles in order to qualify for weaker fuel economy standards, resulting in lower fleet-wide fuel economy. Moving to a continuous function means that any increase in size will allow automakers to qualify for weaker fuel economy standards for that vehicle.

Another consequence of the size-based system is that it abdicates the oil savings requirements of CAFÉ. It puts the nation's oil savings policy in the hands of automakers, who determine what size vehicles to make. For example, they could legally comply with the new Bush CAFÉ standard if they cease making their most efficient trucks, make more guzzlers and their overall fuel economy declines.

President Bush says we are addicted to oil. If he were serious about breaking that addiction, he would require automakers to use modern fuel-saving technology. Instead, the Bush administration is promoting weak fuel economy standards while continuing the push to drill for more oil in the Arctic Refuge and off America's coasts.

So much for kicking the habit.

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