Bush Rolls Ahead With Small Fuel Economy Increase
By J.R. Pegg
WASHINGTON, DC, April 2, 2003 (ENS) - The Bush administration raised fuel economy standards for most sport utility vehicles, pickup trucks and minivans Tuesday, but many contend the increase is too small to have much, if any, impact on the nation's dependence on oil or its need to combat global warming.
The final rule issued Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) increases the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards for light trucks by 1.5 miles per gallon (mpg) over the next three years.
Light trucks include most minivans, sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and pickup trucks.
"This is the greatest increase in fuel economy standards in the last 20 years," said NHTSA Administrator Jeffrey Runge. "The Bush administration is committed to improving vehicle fuel economy while protecting passenger safety and American jobs."
The increase is part of the administration's overall plan to improve vehicle fuel economy, Runge explained. This plan includes tax credits to encourage purchase of hybrid vehicles and a research effort to develop hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles.
Environmentalists have blasted the Bush plan and say this particular increase for light trucks is far too small to prompt any meaningful change in the nation's fuel economy.
The Bush administration has "squandered the opportunity to reverse the 22-year decline in passenger vehicle fuel economy," said David Nemtzow, president of the Alliance to Save Energy. "This will do virtually nothing to reverse the nation's growing and deadly dependence on foreign oil."
"It doesn't even match what the Big Three automakers already committed to on a voluntary basis."
And a loophole in the rule grants automakers a 1.2 mpg credit toward fuel economy standards if they make vehicles that can run on both gasoline and ethanol, according to Daniel Becker, director of Sierra Club's global warming and energy program.
Less than 200 of the nation's 178,000 gas stations serve ethanol, Becker explained.
"According to a Bush administration report issued last year, extending this credit would waste at least nine billion gallons of gas, since so few of these dual fueled vehicles will use ethanol," he said. "Thus the administration's real fuel economy increase comes out to a measly 0.3 mpg."
The United States consumes some 20 million barrels of oil each day, with cars and light trucks accounting for some 40 percent of the total.
The CAFE standard for cars is 27.5 mpg, prior to the announced increase it was 20.7 mpg for light trucks.
These standards are applied on a fleet wide basis for each automaker so that the fuel economy ratings for a manufacturer's entire line of vehicles must average the set mpg figure.
The administration's new rule raises the CAFE standard for light trucks to 21.0 mpg for model year (MY) 2005, 21.6 mpg for MY 2006 and 22.2 mpg for MY 2007. It is the first increase since MY 1996.
Bush officials has been sympathetic to the views of U.S. automakers, who contend that mandated increases in fuel economy will cost them billions of dollars and will force them to compromise safety of these vehicles. U.S. automakers had discussed challenging the 1.5 mpg increase, but now appear willing to try and abide by it.
Last year the administration helped defeat a measure in Congress that would have raised fuel economy standards to 36 mpg. In addition, they have supported increase tax deductions for the purchase of large SUVs.
But analysis by the National Academies of Science found that technology exists to raise the fuel economy of SUVs and trucks higher than the Bush administration's increase, without compromising vehicle safety or making automakers spend more than they can afford.
Additional research by the nonprofit research group Environmental Defense determined that fuel saving technologies and design changes are available today that can safely and affordably improve fuel economy by five percent per year for 10 years.
These alterations, according to Environmental Defense, could prevent 100 million metric tons of greenhouse gas pollution per year by 2020 and cut oil demand by 3.6 million barrels per day.
U.S. passenger vehicles contribute 20 percent of the nation's carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. The United States is responsible for more than 25 percent of the world's CO2 emissions.
On average light trucks emit more pollution than passenger cars, and consume one third more fuel. Some 90 percent of a vehicle's lifetime greenhouse gas production is due to fuel consumption.
"This rule does not go nearly far enough to halt relentless increases in global warming pollution and oil use from light trucks, and much more can be done to increase fuel economy consistent with consumer desires for performance, safety and affordability," said Kevin Mills, director of Environmental Defense's Clean Car Campaign.
The administration's increase is not about reducing oil dependence, said National Environmental Trust President Philip Clapp, it is "about giving the President political cover in the 2004 elections."
"Polls are all showing the White House that the American public overwhelmingly supports stronger fuel efficiency and the President does not want to be caught on the wrong side of this issue," Clapp said.
But Americans clearly love their light trucks, in particular SUVs, and low fuel economy has not stopped record purchases of these vehicles. Light trucks account for more than 50 percent of all new U.S. vehicle sales and are the biggest moneymakers for U.S. automakers.
Sierra Club's Becker contends that economics is a good reason for the Bush administration to require better fuel economy on U.S. automakers, who risk losing the market for more fuel efficient vehicles to Japanese and other foreign companies.
"The automakers have shown that they won't improve fuel economy until required to do so by Washington," Becker said. "This cosmetic change will do virtually nothing to cut our oil use, and will be used by automakers as another excuse to avoid making real improvements."
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