Gasoline may be more expensive than ever in the United States, but talk is still cheap on Capitol Hill. Flocks of bills promoting automobile fuel efficiency and alternative fuels, which took flight on soaring rhetoric last spring, have dropped to the ground like so many downed birds. Nearby, the special interests stand with shotguns still smoking.
High Prices, Big Cars
A Hummer, a kind of super sports utility vehicle made by General Motors, tanks up. As U.S. customers find it can cost more than a hundred dollars to fill up such cars, they are starting to consider other transportation options.
Congress had tried in previous sessions to increase Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for passenger automobiles from a fleetwide average of 27.5 miles per gallon (8.55 liters per 100 kilometers), where they have been stuck since 1985. With gas prices at more than US $3 per gallon [see photo, ”High Prices, Big Cars”], Representatives Sherwood Boehlert (Râ''N.Y.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.) thought that they had the political impetus they needed to pass a bill that would increase CAFE standards for both cars and light trucks—light trucks have had a separate standard—to 33 mpg (7.13 L/100 km).
Boehlert, who will retire this year as chairman of the House Science Committee, has been tirelessly pounding home the main message of the influential 2002 report issued by the National Research Council, Effectiveness and Impact of Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards . ”The technologies needed to meet the standards our bill sets already exist,” Boehlert says. ”Indeed, some of them have already been surpassed since the report was issued in 2002.”
Rather than boost CAFE standards as such, the Bush administration has preferred to give the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration the authority to change the way the standards are figured for passenger cars to achieve some of the same effect. It has moved to a method that focuses on footprint, a measure of a car’s wheelbase, and away from automobile weight and fleet averages [see box, ”Calculating CAFE”].
Last March the highway safety administration, which already had the authority to use the footprint method to determine CAFE standards for the light truck category, adopted that method for cars as well. The result is that average miles per gallon for sport utility vehicles (SUVs), small trucks, and minivans will increase from 21.6 mpg on 2006 models to 24 mpg for 2011 models on an industrywide scale. The increase is better than it looks, because huge vehicles like Hummers were included in that group for the first time.
But when a footprint bill came before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in May and passed, Markey tried to attach an amendment with his preferred fuel mileage boost to 33 mpg. He lost by a vote of 3617. Michigan Representative John Dingell, the committee’s senior Democrat and a close ally of the automobile industry, led a number of other Democrats in opposition to the Markey amendment, which was also opposed by some Republicans.
In the estimation of Eli Hopson, the Washington representative of the Union of Concerned Scientists, not even the underlying footprint bill, which made it through the committee, will pass the full House. That view is seconded by Joe Pouliot, Boehlert’s spokesman, who says there are three separate camps of House members with three mutually exclusive approaches to higher fuel efficiency, none of which commands a House majority: (1) no CAFE changes, no way; (2) CAFE light, that is to say, the footprint approach; and (3) CAFE heavy, the Boehlert-Markey alternative.
Inaction suits the auto companies just fine, and this goes as well for the main union representing their employees, the United Auto Workers. Alan Reuther, the legislative director of the UAW, told members of the House committee that imposition of a higher miles-per-gallon requirement ”would severely discriminate against full line [auto] producers whose product mixes contain greater percentages of larger cars and light trucks.” The UAW also opposes a shift to a footprint calculation for autos, because, it says, dropping the fleetwide average would theoretically allow the Big Three U.S. automakers to leave the production of smaller cars to foreign manufacturers. In the current system, U.S. carmakers need to make small cars in the United States to balance out their many SUVs; a footprint system would render that balancing unnecessary.
In the Senate, Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California and Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine have been pushing a 35-mpg (6.72L/100 km) bill. But some senators who normally are attuned to the environment and concerned about the country’s ever greater dependence on foreign oil have been even more sensitive to the concerns of autoworkers. For example, New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, also a Democrat, has gently spoken in favor of boosting fuel economy ”responsibly without needlessly sacrificing safety or American jobs.” Meanwhile, fuel economy standards are much stronger in some other places, from Europe to China [see graph, ” U.S. Fuel Standards Lag ”].