GREEN BAY, Wis. — The idea that Congress should scrap the EPA’s vehicle mileage standards to promote consumer choice in the marketplace is not just wrongheaded, it poses a false dichotomy. There is no incompatibility between having high mileage standards and giving buyers plenty of choice.
Consumers today choose from a wide range of vehicles, from large trucks and SUVs to family sedans to smaller hybrids, plug-in hybrids and fully electric cars. Within each class of vehicle, manufacturers offer an array of engine sizes and transmissions, and numerous comfort and convenience options to satisfy just about every desire.
We need to remember that federal mileage standards, set by the Department of Transportation and the EPA, serve important national purposes.
They help to reduce dependence on imported oil and thereby lower the economic and national security risks that come with such dependence. They save consumers money by reducing their gasoline usage. And they significantly improve urban air quality and public health while also reducing the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions linked to climate change.
In one of its most important actions, the Obama administration approved new federal fuel economy standards in 2010 and again in 2012. These rules call for an average for cars and light-duty trucks of 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016 and up to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. These standards followed extensive engagement with automakers, unions, consumer groups, environmental and energy experts, the states and the public.
As a result of the rules, automobile companies now have a powerful incentive to develop new technologies that will help to achieve better fuel economy. They are doing that successfully already.
For example, many new turbocharged four-cylinder engines produce as much power as previous six-cylinder engines, yet with improved fuel economy. Manufacturers are turning to lighter-weight materials, improved aerodynamics and new tires, engine management systems, transmissions and electronic controls that raise fuel efficiency with no sacrifice in power, performance or safety.
In part because of the fuel economy rules and the commendable response of vehicle manufacturers, the nation’s dependence on imported oil is plummeting. We are finally moving toward the goal of energy independence that Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter all called for during the 1970s.
In the last few years, reliance on oil imports has fallen from more than 60 percent to an anticipated 32 percent for 2014. Many studies now forecast an energy independent America in as little as a decade.
Some of the decline in oil imports, of course, can be attributed to increased domestic production, but fuel economy standards help as well.
All of us have benefitted from relatively stable gasoline prices in recent years. But imagine what would happen if prices spiked to $5.00, or $6.00 per gallon? The economic impact could be devastating to many, and particularly to those who depend on their vehicles for long commutes or business operations.
In such a scenario, it is likely that consumers will demand better fuel economy. But flip-flopping on mileage rules serves no one’s interest. Automobile companies and other businesses in the transportation sector — for example, manufacturers of buses, trucks, and aircraft — need to have consistency in the rules to plan effectively.
Finally, there is the challenge of climate change. Despite continuing denial in some quarters, it is a settled issue among climate specialists, and burning fossil fuels like gasoline is the most significant cause of climate change.
Even with the new fuel economy standards, our transportation system today remains almost completely dependent on the use of fossil fuels. But true energy independence means that eventually our cars, trucks, and buses — and aircraft — should be powered by domestic fuel sources that are derived from something other than fossil fuels. Continuation of national fuel economy standards helps to move us toward that important goal.
Michael E. Kraft is professor emeritus of political science and public and environmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Readers may write to him at 2420 Nicolet Dr., MAC B310, Green Bay, Wis. 54311; email: kraftmuwgb.edu.