Detroit automakers fought successfully to fend off tougher fuel economy rules for nearly two decades, so it was a little disorienting to see them cheering last week as President Obama announced a new crackdown. But even if General Motors (now a partially owned subsidiary of the federal government) and its competitors are no longer trying to block cleaner cars, another powerful lobby remains very much opposed, and isn’t above issuing flagrant disinformation to achieve its goals: the fossil fuel industry.
Last year, the Obama administration announced new fuel standards covering model years 2012 to 2016 that will raise the average mileage of carmakers’ fleets from 25 miles per gallon today to about 35.5 mpg in six years. On Friday, Obama directed regulators to work on rules that would lead to further improvements from 2017 to 2025, and announced plans to set fuel rules for heavy trucks for the first time. Environmentalists cheered, while the oil industry, via its proxies, fired its usual broadsides.
“Think tanks” funded by the fossil fuel industry have long attacked federal fuel economy rules. The reaction to Obama’s announcement by the Institute for Energy Research, a Washington-based hotbed of global warming denial supported by oil and coal interests, fit the usual pattern. Among other specious claims, it posited that the existing 2016 standards would harm consumers by adding $1,000 to the price of a car, and that they would lead to smaller, lighter and therefore less safe vehicles. These statements are the very definition of half-truths.
According to the analysis of the new mileage rules by the Environmental Protection Agency, they will indeed add “less than $1,000" to the price of a new car in 2016. But it goes on to say that consumers will more than offset the higher price through lower fuel costs within three years.
The safety issue is more complicated, but again, opponents are telling only part of the story. Studies have shown that the first crackdown on fuel economy, starting in 1978, did produce more traffic fatalities as smaller cars hit the freeways. But this time, the standards are being applied differently. The new rules are based on the size of a vehicle’s footprint — big vehicles such as SUVs don’t have to get nearly as many miles per gallon as small economy cars. This will probably result in lighter vehicles but not smaller ones. The effect on safety isn’t known, but the federal analysis suggests that with proper materials and design, safety actually could be enhanced.
To recap the benefits of fuel economy: Consumers win by saving money on gas; public health improves because cars emit fewer toxic pollutants; the nation becomes less reliant on foreign oil; and greenhouse gas emissions drop. But according to the Institute for Energy Research, all this is bad for us. If you buy that, we’ve got some coastal real estate in Louisiana to sell you real cheap.