Our fuelish ways

The auto industry and its allies are going ballistic. Newspaper ads, radio commercials and opinion pieces are flying as part of a rhetorical barrage attempting to convince Americans that their way of life, indeed their very lives, are in the utmost jeopardy.

The issue is corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, standards, and Sen. John Kerry is leading the charge to ratchet them up so that our cars and sports utility vehicles get significantly more miles per gallon. That effort by the Massachusetts Democrat gained some important bipartisan support last week when Arizona Republican John McCain lent his name to a compromise bill that would force the most dramatic increase in fuel efficiency since the standards were first introduced during the 1970s in the wake of a crippling oil embargo.

In many circles, particularly those emanating from the auto industry’s Detroit epicenter, that kind of government intervention is seen as downright blasphemous. As Mississippi’s Republican Sen. Trent Lott so eloquently stated last year, “The American people have a right to drive a great big road-hog SUV if they want to. And I’m gonna get me one.”

You can almost hear President George W. Bush and the rest of the oil men in his administration hollerin’ sooey all the way to the gas pump. Since America has only 3 percent of the world’s known oil reserves, yet annually consumes 25 percent of the petroleum produced, critics of that profligacy consider such porcine references entirely apt.

Likewise, given that automakers and the United Auto Workers are already campaigning heavily against the bill, it’s no surprise that Democratic lawmakers representing states reliant on the auto industry are also on Bush’s side in this fight. According to Carl Levin’s office, the Michigan Democrat is crafting an alternative to Kerry-McCain.

“Sen. Levin believes that we need a resolution which improves fuel economy and protects the environment without harming the domestic manufacturing industry,” explained a member of his staff in an e-mail. “He is working with a bipartisan group of senators to seek a solution which meets these goals.”

And, if Levin’s bill is at all similar to the House measure championed by U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D-Dearborn), it will be a drop in the barrel compared to what Kerry-McCain attempts to accomplish: elimination of the more lenient standards for gas-guzzling SUVs and other light trucks, raising the standards for both them and cars to an average of 36 mpg by 2016 — an increase of 50 percent over the current average of about 24 mpg.

By comparison, the energy bill passed by the House last year contained requirements that, according to critics, would result in an increase of only about 1 mpg by 2009.

From metaphor to war

It’s been a quarter century since Jimmy Carter stood in the Oval Office, buttoned up in his cardigan and telling us that our response to the energy crisis that held us in its grip had to be viewed as the “moral equivalent to war.” Since then, we’ve seen that this nation is also willing to wage the real deal to guarantee that supplies of Middle Eastern crude flow freely.

“Our decision to take military action against Iraq after the invasion of Kuwait was, at a minimum, heavily influenced by our dependence on oil from the Persian Gulf,” Stuart Eizenstat, ambassador to the European Union during the Clinton administration, told a Senate committee holding hearings on CAFE standards in January.

Giving people something to think about the next time they see an American flag flying from the antenna of a fully loaded Chevy Suburban, Eizenstat added, “The lesson of the past 25 years in the Persian Gulf is clear: Regional instability there has real, tangible effects here, in the United States. If we do not take action at home to reduce our reliance on oil from abroad, we run the risk of falling prey to the very same problems we have lived through in the past.”

CAFE requirements were created at a time when only a small minority of Americans drove anything other than a car. The trucks and vans on the road back then were used primarily for work. Consequently, a two-tiered system that allowed so-called light trucks — minivans, pickups and SUVs — to be less efficient posed little problem. Since then, however, that loophole has been exploited.

The current standard, unchanged for nearly two decades, mandates that an automaker’s car fleet must achieve an average fuel efficiency of 27.5 miles per gallon or face harsh fines; SUVs and other light trucks need only average 20.7 mpg. As consumers shifted from Novas and Vista Cruiser station wagons to Caravans and Explorers, CAFE became less effective. Consequently, with light trucks making up nearly 50 percent of U.S. auto sales, overall fuel efficiency hovers at its lowest level since 1980.

Safe fixes

Its not that the auto industry has been asleep at the wheel during that time. There’s been a steady stream of technological advances improving fuel efficiency. But instead of translating into more miles per gallon, the advances have been used to produce bigger vehicles and greater horsepower.

Opponents of CAFE argue that, particularly when it comes to helping the United States achieve energy independence, the program is an utter failure.

The Coalition for Vehicle Choice, a nonprofit group closely tied to the auto industry, argues that since CAFE went into effect in 1975, dependence on foreign oil has gone up drastically.

What’s missing from that equation, however, is an analysis of where we’d be absent such standards. Proponents of CAFE contend that, even with its flaws, the program has already achieved a large measure of success.

“CAFE currently saves us 118 million gallons of gasoline every day and 913 million barrels of oil each year,” testified Joan Claybrook, head of the consumer group Public Citizen, at a Senate hearing earlier this year.”

Opponents remain unmoved.

“Relying on CAFE is like trying to address national obesity by requiring clothes manufacturers to make smaller sizes,” says Eron Shosteck, spokesperson for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. Saying that the industry is merely responding to consumer desires, Shosteck chided supporters of increased standards by saying, “They ought to call this bill by its rightful name: The SUV, Pickup Truck and Minivan Elimination Act of 2002.”

Opponents are also hammering away at what they say are the drastic safety risks that accompany higher CAFE standards. According to the coalition, Kerry’s plan will make cars, minivans, SUVs and pickup trucks “smaller, less useful and significantly less safe.”

Kerry calls such statements yet another example of the auto industry’s typical “fear-mongering.”

The safety argument gained momentum last year when the National Academy of Science released an intensive study of CAFE standards and their effects. A majority of the 13-member panel looking at the issue calculated that, in 1992 alone, as many as 2,600 people died as a result of crashes involving vehicles made lighter and, hence, more dangerous, in order to comply with fuel-efficiency requirements.

What opponents fail to point out in their ad campaigns and opinion pieces is what else the NAS study determined: By using technologies that exist already or are expected to be available in the near future, automakers have the capacity to significantly increase fuel efficiency without reducing the weight or performance — and, hence, the safety — of a vehicle. And it can be done without adding significantly to the vehicle’s sticker price. The same conclusion was also reached in a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Their findings stand in contrast to an auto industry declaring plant closings, lost jobs, and a lost way of life are in the offing should Kerry and McCain succeed.

For his part, Kerry isn’t echoing Jimmy Carter’s refrain about the moral equivalence of war. Instead, he’s asserting that his initiative is a way to wage peace.

“As a veteran,” he said in an e-mail responding to questions from Metro Times, “I feel so strongly about avoiding millions of barrels of foreign oil through greater fuel efficiency: Because no foreign government can embargo them, no terrorist can seize control of them and no American son or daughter will have to risk his or her life to protect them.”

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]
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