New CAFE Standards? Don't Break Out the Champagne Yet

Nothing sets congressmen's mouths ajawing faster than a good ol' fashioned debate about fuel consumption standards. As you've probably heard by now, the Senate just passed an energy bill that would raise CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) standards by an average of 35 miles per gallon by the year 2020. While not much of an achievement in itself (other countries in Europe and Asia already handily beat these standards with Japan boasting an average of 45 mpg), the energy bill must also be ratified by the House, which only supports upping standards to 32 mpg by 2022, before it is sent on to the president's desk for his final approval.

Let's say, however, that the energy bill was approved by the House at the higher 35 mpg average and then enacted by the president. Would there then be reason to celebrate? Not really: there are still plenty of compromises and loopholes that could render the bill's provisions moot even by the low standards that it has set (even Bush came out in favor of stronger ones in his State of the Union address).First of all, keep in mind that the improved fuel economy standards only apply to new vehicles so it will take at least another 10 years until the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions brought about by the reforms are felt. As Kassie Siegel, the climate program director at the Center for Biological Diversity notes: "The CAFE increase proposal is not appropriate to the scale of the problem. Scientists are telling us that just 10 more years of business-as-usual emissions will make it difficult to avoid climate disaster."

Perhaps the worst part of the bill is the fact that it won't necessarily mandate automakers to meet the new standards since the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which administers CAFE (but is for all intents and purposes in big auto's back pocket), can tamp down or eliminate them by showing they're not "cost effective" for the industry.

"They are a wholly owned and operated subsidiary of the Detroit automakers. Since 1989, they have sat on their tailpipes and done virtually nothing to improve fuel economy standards. Their approach to regulating the industry is to ask the industry what they want, and then do it," says Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club's global warming program. Even then, automakers can just bear the brunt of paying fines every now and then to exceed the CAFE standards. As a result, there's really no incentive for these automakers to meet these new requirements since they can just internalize the costs.

It's really amazing that with all the vitriol and ink spilled over the energy bill debate we've only come out with these meager new provisions. Detroit tried to argue that the imposition of these higher standards would significantly increase their costs and hurt their business.

That talking point is really a non-starter: if you look at the beneficiaries of booming auto sales over the past few years, you'll see that the clear winners are Japanese auto companies like Toyota that have made higher fuel emissions standards one of their core principles. There's a reason Americans have been snapping up new Priuses: they want better fuel economy. One can only hope that the next Congress will do more to improve upon these slim pickings (but don't hold your breath).

Via ::Salon: Hip, hip, CAFE! (news website)

See also: ::Bush Calls for Higher Fuel Efficiency, ::Large Majority of Americans Support 40 mpg

Tags: Congress | Detroit | Toyota

Best of TreeHugger