Leader Blues

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Fuel efficiency must improve

Was it the prospect of $4-a-gallon gasoline and perpetual war in the region where we get much of our oil, the growing dismay over global warming, a timely decision by the U. S. Supreme Court or the rising chorus from Democratic presidential candidates demanding higher fuel standards? Whichever, President Bush at long last said Monday that he would look into raising the federal fuel-efficiency standards for new cars.

Not that it matters much. The president is not going to follow through, at least not to an extent that will make much difference. He has always been opposed to mandatory efficiency standards and promised U.S. automakers in 2000 that he would see to it that they did not have to make cars that got much higher gas mileage. He has kept his word, although Congress — both parties — has not applied any pressure. His heart is not in the efficiency cause, and no one should expect to see any results in the next 18 months.

But every week another of the Democratic presidential candidates pronounces himself an advocate of much higher standards. Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut said he would double the current average fuel economy of American automakers — about 24 miles per gallon — to 50 mpg by 2017. Four other candidates propose less draconian steps.

The corporate average fuel efficiency (CAFÉ) standards, which were first imposed by the Energy Policy Conservation Act of 1975, provided the single most dramatic reduction in the domestic demand for imported oil, and the failure to continue the pressure for better cars for nearly 20 years has been the single largest contributor to the present crisis: $3-a-gallon gasoline at Arkansas pumps this week, an enervating war in the Middle East, and the intolerable carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming.

Congress imposed the CAFÉ standards after the Arab oil embargo of 1973-74 tripled the price of crude. Something had to be done to reduce the demand for oil and our dependence on the Middle East. New models in 1974 got an average of 12.9 mpg. The law required manufacturers to produce models that met a series of annual averages, up to 27.5 mpg by 1985. The idea was that since the technology was available the government would continue the pressure until the fleetwide average reached 50 mpg. But future administrations and congresses went in the opposite direction as fuel costs declined and U.S. automakers wanted to meet the demand for bigger and faster cars rather than lighter, more efficient ones.

The average fuel efficiency of the Big Three U.S. automakers has been steadily declining for years. Meantime, they have been dramatically losing market share to more efficient models made by Japanese companies.

Perhaps the president really is sincere. There is at last a recognition in some quarters that the Middle East stability that the United States says it pursues by war is not attainable by arms after all and that a far safer and more certain strategy is to control the crisis on the demand side, by reducing dependence on imports from the oil oligarchies.

The Republican-controlled Supreme Court gave him another wake-up call last month by ruling that the Clean Air Act required his administration to regulate carbon-dioxide emissions, which numerous state governments (not Arkansas’) had petitioned him to do. To avoid it, the president will have to make a scientific conclusion that carbon dioxide does not contribute to global warming. The Bush administration seems no longer willing to make that claim.

Starting the long process of building cleaner and more efficient cars and trucks will help get us to that safer future, even if it is years away. Other alternative technologies to fossil fuels need to be pursued, too, but nothing is surer and quicker than doing what we already know can be done.