Oil pressure


The auto industry and the Bush administration are now 0 for 3 in their attempts to block tighter fuel economy standards in court. There’s a reason for their rotten record: They don’t have a case. And the longer they delay taking action, the higher the price Americans will pay.

Last week, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is charged with setting vehicle mileage rules, violated federal law when it tweaked fuel standards for light trucks in March 2006. Not only did the agency fail to take greenhouse gas emissions into account, but it continued to allow an irrational loophole under which large vehicles such as vans, pickups and SUVs can get, on average, five miles fewer a gallon than passenger cars.

Giving light trucks a break on fuel economy made some sense back in the days when most of these vehicles were used for work purposes by contractors and ranchers, but today, SUVs make up 53% of new auto sales -- and they rarely haul lumber. Most SUVs are used to shuttle passengers, just like cars, so there is zero justification for giving them a separate mileage classification. There’s even less reason to exempt heavy trucks, such as Hummers, from meeting any standard at all.


If it’s not appealed, the 9th Circuit ruling will force the Bush administration to go back and try again on fuel standards, this time taking tailpipe emissions into greater account. That’s consistent with a decision in April by the U.S. Supreme Court that the Environmental Protection Agency is obliged to regulate greenhouse gases, thus opening the door to tighter regulation on mileage. It’s also in keeping with a September ruling by a federal district judge in Vermont who said California is allowed to set stronger restrictions on automotive emissions than the federal government.

Pressure to improve fuel standards isn’t coming just from the courts, but from the court of public opinion. Even conservatives who dislike heavy regulation and distrust efforts to fight global warming have ample reason to favor stronger mileage rules. As gasoline prices soar and hostile, oil-rich nations become ever more powerful, there is no better immediate solution than improving fuel efficiency.

Congress is working to reconcile two energy bills. The Senate version would do away with the “SUV loophole” and raise mileage standards from an average of 25 mpg to 35 mpg by 2020. The House, where energy policy is dominated by Detroit apologist Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), doesn’t address fuel economy in its bill. Unless members of Congress want to explain to their constituents why they took no meaningful action even as high oil prices were threatening to derail the economy, they should ensure that the Senate’s vision prevails.