Leader Blues

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

WED 5-3-6 EDITORIAL >> Bush sees the light

The Republican proposal to send everyone a $100 check to get them through the gasoline crisis was greeted with jeers and jibes, which was the reaction to the other anemic proposals from the White House and the congressional leadership. The hair must have been standing on President Bush’s neck last week as he read the polls and heard from a skeptical public.

So Friday, Bush got serious, or so we hope. Visiting a gasoline station at Biloxi, Miss., to show his concern for motorists trying to pay $3 plus for gasoline, he announced that he now favored raising the CAFE standards for all vehicles. That is the Corporate Average Fuel Economy rules, which require vehicle manufacturers to achieve a minimum average fuel efficiency for the entire fleet of vehicles they sell each year. The president and his party have opposed raising those standards because — frankly, we’re making a presumption here — American carmakers and the oil industry opposed them. He did not want to interfere with the free market that way. But Friday he said they would be a good deal.

Nothing that he and the Congress could do that is immediately achievable would have the same salutary effect on the fuel market or the environment as sharply graduating the CAFE standards. That includes the pointless proposal by Sen. Mark Pryor and others to give motorists a little vacation from federal gas taxes. Oil marketers would soak up the margin.

Nothing that has been done since the Arab oil embargo sent oil prices skyrocketing in 1973-74 has had such fine effect as the fuel-efficiency quotas. Without those, the U. S. would be burning hundreds of millions of gallons more gasoline a day and sending tons more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The CAFE standards, which set gradually rising fuel-efficiency quotas for each class of vehicles, actually were hardly controversial when they were included in the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975, written by a Demo-cratic Congress but signed by President Ford. Automakers reconfigured engines, body designs and weights, and in a few years the average mileage of a gallon of gas in new cars more than doubled. But when oil prices went down sharply in the mid-1980s, the Reagan administration relaxed the standards. The program never really got back on track, although technology breakthroughs would have permitted huge increases in efficiency.

President Clinton sought in 1994 to establish a new regimen of fuel efficiencies, but the congressional elections that fall brought Republicans to power in both houses, and it was the end of progress on CAFE. Congress put riders on transportation appropriations to prevent spending any money on fuel-efficiency studies. That pre-emption was lifted in 2000, Clinton’s last year, and a transportation study the next year recommended sharp increases in the standards beyond the 27.5 miles per gallon for passenger cars and 20.7 for light trucks. But Bush and Congress passed.

Bush said last week that he wanted to raise the standards for every vehicle class, including SUVs. Let us hope that he is serious about it and that it is not just another empty gesture, like the big space initiative he announced years ago. Let us hope, too, that the standards are bold and not stretched out over the next 25 years. In March, his Transportation Department announced that it was going to mildly raise the standards for light trucks and heavy SUVs. Bush has the authority to raise car standards on his own, but he wants Congress to do it. Fine.