The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

New Fuel Standards Stop Short, Environmentalists Say

by Michelle Chen

Even during what many perceive to be a crisis at the pump, with oil companies gouging consumers and dependence on foreign oil drawing concern, the government is softballing fuel-efficiency standards.

Aug. 26, 2005 – This week, the Bush administration moved to improve the mileage of some popular types of automobiles, but groups that have been pushing for years to make cars go farther on a gallon of gas say this latest proposal is running on empty.

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The proposed rule would enhance the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for "light trucks," a category including minivans, pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles.

The rule, issued through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), would phase in higher standards for newly manufactured light trucks based on vehicle size starting in model year 2007. The average efficiency targets, designed to offer "flexibility" to manufacturers, would at full implementation range from 21.3 miles per gallon for the largest trucks of more than 65 square feet, to 28.4 miles per gallon for the smallest trucks.

Currently, NHTSA estimates that new light trucks, which make up about half of vehicles sold nationwide, manage just 21 miles per gallon on average. The agency projects that the reforms would yield lifetime savings of about 10 billion gallons of gasoline for the vehicles produced over a four-year implementation period. US drivers currently consume more than 135 billion gallons of gasoline per year.

The automobile industry has expressed support for the proposed tier-based model, arguing that the current blanket standard for light trucks is too rigid and should be tailored toward different model types. Ford spokesperson Ed Lewis told The NewStandard the new framework "appears to be a more reasonable approach" to regulating fuel efficiency.

“We’re not only going to see little, if anything, in terms of cuts to global warming pollution, but little, if any, help for consumers who are paying record prices at the pump.” -- Jeremiah Baumann, Oregon State PIRG

But the strongest proponents of raising CAFE standards, which Congress created to address the 1970s oil crisis, argue that the proposed rule gives the "big three" automakers – DaimlerChrysler, Ford and General Motors – a green light to keep churning out fuel-wasting vehicles while failing to advance the main goal of efficiency standards: to conserve oil. Both environmentalists and government analysts have cited the country’s dependency on oil, the majority imported, as one of the driving factors behind economic insecurity, soaring gas prices and global climate change.

Jeremiah Baumann, a clean energy advocate with the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group (OSPIRG), called NHTSA’s plan "just as bad for the environment as it is for consumers."

"We’re not only going to see little, if anything, in terms of cuts to global warming pollution, but little, if any, help for consumers who are paying record prices at the pump," Baumann said.

Critics of the proposal are primarily concerned that it fails to address a critical regulatory gap between light trucks and ordinary cars that drags down overall vehicle fuel efficiency. The relatively low current standards for light trucks were enacted before the explosion in fuel-hungry sport utility vehicles (SUVs), which pump out nearly 50 percent more air pollution than the average car.

Public interest organizations believe the automobile industry can and should go far beyond the proposed new standards.

Gigantic Hummer-type SUVs and super-size pickups are paradoxically not subject to CAFE regulations at all, because they exceed a weight threshold of 8,500 pounds.

Environmental groups fear the new rule offers the industry even more leeway, since a manufacturer could decide to make a vehicle bigger to bump it into a higher size category with a lower standard. Critics also say a provision in the 2005 energy bill could negate the benefits of the NHTSA proposal altogether by permitting automakers to inflate fuel economy estimates with credits for vehicles capable of running on both gas and alternative fuels. In reality, gas alternatives, such as corn-based ethanol, provide less than one percent of the fuel these cars consume, according to NHTSA’s own estimates.

David Friedman, director of research for the Clean Vehicles Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), an environmental organization, said that the administration’s effort to restructure the CAFE system could have led to major technological improvements, but "the potential… was thrown out the window and instead basically ends up being a bunch of new loopholes."

Public interest organizations believe the automobile industry can and should go far beyond the proposed new standards.

According to UCS estimates, if all light trucks were subject to the current standard for regular cars – 27.5 miles per gallon – by 2015, consumers would save roughly 11 billion gallons of gasoline annually and pay about 25 percent less to fuel up.

The Sierra Club and the US Public Interest Research Group have called for scrapping the distinction between light trucks and cars and setting a standard of 40 miles per gallon for all vehicles. The Sierra Club projects that this standard could conserve more oil per day than the amount the United States currently imports from the Persian Gulf region.

Though more advanced cars would carry higher price tags, according to the UCS, if the 40-mile standard were in place by 2015, drivers would enjoy net fuel savings of approximately $23 billion per year, and the new technology investment could generate an estimated 161,000 new jobs.

Some states are not waiting for the federal government to spur the industry into action. Oregon, where demand for electric hybrid cars is rising steadily, is moving toward implementing new car emission standards that encourage automakers to market more efficient vehicles. With tighter state-level regulations, said Baumann, "we’re going to start seeing the benefits that the Bush administration is refusing to provide the rest of the country."

Technology to improve efficiency is well within the industry’s reach, according to the Sierra Club: just using lighter-weight materials to build cars could make them up to 30 percent more fuel efficient, the group claims.

Still, Ford’s Lewis countered that the reason light-truck fuel economy is now stuck around 21 miles per gallon is that consumers are simply not demanding better mileage. "The current technology can go well beyond that," he acknowledged. But noting that Ford’s production of more advanced models is dictated by consumer interest, he said, "unfortunately, you can’t mandate what people buy."

Yet advocates for clean car technology say that the industry is ignoring – not responding to – market demand, while undermining its own business in the process. Domestic carmakers have seen their sales drop as gas prices have risen, suggesting to public interest groups that budget-minded consumers are drawn toward more fuel-efficient, foreign-manufactured models. Nationwide, new registrations of hybrid vehicles grew by over 80 percent between 2003 and 2004, according to the industry analysis firm R.L. Polk & Co.

"The Bush administration’s proposal effectively gives the big three a shovel to dig their own grave with," warned Sierra Club policy analyst Brendan Bell. Under loose federal standards, he said, industry giants would "continue [to] try and rely on gas-guzzling vehicles that Americans are turning away from."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

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Michelle Chen is a staff journalist.

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