Full speed ahead on mileage goals

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

The major energy bill that cleared the Senate last week isn't as sweeping as Democrats would have liked. To get the legislation past Republicans, they agreed to keep billions in tax breaks for oil companies and to forgo clean-power requirements for utilities. But the bill does contain one item that makes it a triumph for national security, consumers and the environment — better vehicle mileage standards.

A congressionally mandated boost in these corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards is long overdue. Indeed, the benchmark for U.S.-made passenger cars has been stuck at 27.5 miles per gallon since the Reagan administration. Truck standards, meanwhile, have topped out at a paltry 22.2 mpg. That's absurdly low for a nation as technologically advanced as the U.S. Are we still using 1980s-style green-screen computers? If President Bush signs off, U.S. automakers will need to hit an industrywide average of 35 miles per gallon for cars, SUVs and small trucks by 2020.

There are myriad reasons to back this hike. Security? Since mileage standards stagnated in 1986, America's appetite for imported oil has grown from 27 percent of total oil consumption to 60 percent, reports the Pew Campaign for Energy Efficiency. That's just pathetic, considering that CAFE began after the 1970s Arab oil embargo to cut dependence on Middle Eastern exporters. The higher CAFE standards will save 1.1 million barrels of oil a day, about half of the oil we get from the Persian Gulf.

Savings? While analysts say making cars more efficient could add $1,000 to their sticker price, the trade-off at the pump is worth it. Based on U.S. Department of Energy calculators, it costs $1,300 a year to fuel a 27.5-mpg car with $3-a-gallon gas. Meanwhile, it costs $1,000 to fuel a 35-mpg car. Over the 10-year life of the vehicle, that's a savings of $3,000. In total, Congress said motorists are expected to save $22 billion at the pump.

Environment? Besides reducing annual vehicle emissions by 200 million tons and, thus, improving air quality, higher CAFE standards would diminish the need to squeeze every drop of oil out of America's sensitive lands.

After years of resistance, U.S. automakers' day of reckoning may have arrived. They shouldn't fear higher standards. A study last year by the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute suggests they could significantly plump profits by raising fuel efficiency, as their Japanese rivals have done, since higher gas prices drive down demand for Detroit's products. The UAW and many Republicans support CAFE goals. President Bush should steer them into law.