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The low road

WITH GAS PRICES soaring and congressional Democrats eager to flex their environmental muscles, the stars have seldom been better aligned for a long-overdue increase in automotive fuel economy standards. Yet the best hope for progress -- a sensible bill from California Sen. Dianne Feinstein -- underwent oral surgery Tuesday and is now all but toothless.

Feinstein’s bill would require that every automaker’s combined car and light-truck fleets sold in the U.S. improve from an average of 25 miles per gallon to 35 mpg by 2019. While that was originally an ironclad mandate -- and the first major increase in overall fuel standards since 1985 -- the Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday watered down the bill by allowing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to let carmakers off the hook if it determines the annual goals aren’t cost-effective. That Hummer-sized loophole means any administration hostile to tighter standards, or simply unwilling to take on the tough Detroit lobby, might be able to ignore them.

The United States lags behind other industrialized countries when it comes to fuel efficiency mandates, according to a 2004 study by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. While it’s hard to compare standards because of different approaches and units of measurement, Pew found that, even five years ago, the European Union and Japan required car fleets to get better than 37 mpg. U.S. carmakers currently sell vehicles in Europe and Japan, so there’s no technological reason they can’t introduce more fuel-efficient cars in the domestic market.

What worries Detroit is the cost. The Big Three long ago hitched their wagons to the gas-guzzling sport utility vehicle, which served them well with American consumers. Retooling for smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles will be very expensive at a time when they’re already reeling under heavy employee benefit costs. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, in a tough speech Monday to a Detroit business group, offered one possible way out: government assistance on healthcare in exchange for a commitment to build more hybrid cars. Yet even without much government intervention, consumers are demanding a shift to higher-mileage vehicles. If the Big Three don’t adjust to that market in a hurry, they’ll be roadkill.

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Fearing her bill might not make it through committee, let alone the full Senate, without giving automakers an offramp, Feinstein caved. On the plus side, things could have been worse. While her bill is seriously weakened by the cost-effectiveness loophole, other amendments actually make it stronger, such as a new (if belated) requirement that medium and heavy trucks comply with fuel standards for the first time.

Still, without a firm government mandate, there’s a good chance the 35-mpg goal won’t be met, even two decades after Europe and Japan got there. That means higher greenhouse gas emissions and a greater reliance on foreign oil. That’s too heavy a cost for placating Detroit.


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