The Bush administration's long-awaited plan to overhaul fuel economy regulations was released yesterday, promising to save gasoline by requiring modest improvements in the performance of sport utility vehicles and other trucks.
But the proposal was swiftly condemned by environmental groups and other critics, who said it would do little to slow the nation's swelling oil consumption.
Top administration officials said their plan would save 10 billion gallons of gasoline over nearly two decades, or roughly 25 days' worth of gas under current consumption trends. It is the first sweeping change of fuel regulations covering light-duty trucks, a category that includes sport utility vehicles, pickup trucks and vans.
If nothing else, the 169-page plan is complex. Today, corporate average fuel economy regulations - known in the industry as CAFE standards - divide each automaker's annual new vehicle production into two categories: passenger cars and light-duty trucks. New cars must average 27.5 miles a gallon and light trucks 20.7 miles a gallon in 2004 models. Rules for cars are not being changed.
The administration previously increased the standard for light trucks to 22.2 miles a gallon by the 2007 model year. The new plan would raise it to 23.5 miles a gallon by 2010.
More important, it would create a system in which each automaker's new light trucks would be divided into six size classes. Larger size classes would have less demanding fuel economy targets. From 2008 to 2010 models, automakers would have a choice between the current system and the new size-based system. By 2011 models, only the new system would remain.
This announcement ties in nicely with the recent column by Fareed Zakaria decrying our dependence on imported oil.
The administration's plan is expected to reopen a vigorous debate about the effects of fuel economy regulations on safety. A leading architect of the plan, John D. Graham of the Office of Management and Budget, has been an author of much-criticized research in the past contending that fuel economy regulations killed thousands of people each year because they gave automakers incentives to make vehicles lighter so they would be more fuel-efficient. Similar findings have been published more recently by the National Academy of Sciences and are at the heart of the plan's structure.
Consumer groups dispute such contentions and raised concerns about the opposite problem, that increasingly heavy S.U.V.'s and pickup trucks have added risks for other drivers. The proposal, as written, could add to the disputes if automakers made vehicles larger to put them into less stringent categories.
Let's also cite a CBO review from 2002; the Times notes a National Academy of Sciences study; this seems to be a rebuttal by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, although I really ought to track down the original study as well.
Finally, let's note Sullivan's near perfect tone-deafness - he has a proposed bumper-sticker meant to rally public support for conservation by asking "How many soldiers-per-gallon does your SUV get?". Jonah Goldberg has admitted to having an increased sympathy for Zakaria's viewpoint, and I suspect many other right-wingers are as well. However, a bumper sticker that points just one degree away from "No More Blood for Oil" is unlikely to rally Mr. Goldberg or others not already rallied. Even people who support the war in Iraq can support conservation. Or, Dems can look for opportunity here (and imperil their NASCAR outreach!).
The Times also covers at length the innate problem of relying on a rulebook - for example, the rules encourage manufacturers to build slightly larger cars, since stretching a car or truck into the next-larger category eases the requirements.
I expect everyone will have a laugh at the "Too Big to Regulate" category:
The proposal does not extend fuel regulations to the largest and least fuel-efficient S.U.V.'s and pickup trucks - those like the Hummer H2 that are more than 8,500 pounds when loaded. The administration said it would seek further comment on whether larger S.U.V.'s alone should be inserted into the final rule.
Can no one control these monsters? Well, as Arnold might have said - the regulators will be back.
And yet another area for caveats and quibbles - the Times recently ran a story on hybrid cars noting that engineers, presemably responding to consumer demand, had used most of the potential benefits of a hybrid to boost performance rather than improve fuel economy. The result - hybrid cars with slightly better fuel economy and sports car performance. Cool, yes, but not exactly the point.
Ultimately, people will have to want slower, smaller, more fuel efficient cars before Detroit will be able to sell them.
Can I soundbite my official editorial position? Two obvious externalities muddy the free market for cars and oil. First, a signficant bit of our defense budget goes to securing access to "cheap" Persian Gulf oil, which suggests that the true price of this oil is not being borne by consumers (especially suach as the Japanese.
Secondly, auto safety depends in part on what others are driving - if some drivers are lumbering about in large SUVs, the folks scurrying about in tiny rice-eaters are at greater risk. But can regulation solve this problem of unilateral disarmament?