More Pain at the Gas Pump

The Bush administration recently announced that it would save us 10 billion gallons of gasoline by making minuscule changes in fuel-economy standards for “light trucks.” That sounds like a lot of gasoline, but there is a catch. It will take nearly two decades for us to save what amounts to less than one month of current U.S. gasoline demands.

Making matters worse, the plan creates the potential for new leaks in the fuel-economy program. If this is the best Washington has to offer _ and notwithstanding whatever Hurricane Katrina might inflict _ Americans should buckle up for continued pain at the pump.

Had the administration wanted to make an honest attempt to help consumers and improve U.S. energy security, it could have closed existing loopholes in the fuel-economy program and relied on Detroit’s ingenuity to meet significantly higher standards.

Taking these steps would have saved consumers $14 billion a year by 2015, and would have cut gasoline demand by more than 10 billion gallons in just that one year. Instead, the proposed standards will not even compensate for the oil lost through fuel-economy loopholes in the president’s recent energy bill.

More troubling, the plan splits the light-truck category (which includes all trucks, minivans and SUVs) into six classes, based on size. Bigger sizes will have to meet lower fuel-economy targets, creating the potential for automakers to super-size their trucks, to take advantage of weaker standards.

Adding insult to injury, the new proposal does not even close existing loopholes that allow automakers to avoid meeting current fuel-economy requirements. These loopholes let minivans, SUVs and station wagons guzzle 30 percent more gas than most cars, because they are treated as if they were designed for off-road operation or carrying cargo, not simply to carry people.

These loopholes also exempt from fuel standards the larger work vehicles that farmers and contractors rely on (not to mention the Hummer H2), leaving businesses no avenue for relief from high gasoline prices.

What the administration has offered is to require that automakers increase the fuel economy of “light trucks” by less than half a mile per gallon every year through 2011. Our analysis indicates that this falls well short of Detroit’s potential.

Tripling this increase by tapping into existing technologies and closing current loopholes would give minivans, SUVs, station wagons, and even pickups the same fuel economy of today’s cars, while maintaining their size and utility, and improving safety.

Closing the fuel-economy gap between cars and light trucks would cut fuel costs for truck buyers by at least 25 percent _ equivalent to reducing gasoline prices to below $2 per gallon from today’s record high of more than $3.00.

This could be done for less than $800 per vehicle with off-the-shelf technologies, which pay for themselves in just over a year at today’s gas prices. The problem here is not a shortage of technology, but a shortage of leadership.

Instead of trusting in American ingenuity and innovation, Washington continues to buy weak arguments from automakers that want to maintain the gas-guzzling status quo. Detroit argues that it is at the fickle whims of the market. But even ignoring the fact that the way the Big 3 (DaimlerChrysler, Ford and General Motors) are tackling high gas prices is by increasing incentives on their gas guzzlers, their arguments just do not hold water.

Automakers claim to offer choice to the market, bragging about how many vehicles they offer that get over 30 miles a gallon on the highway. But they neglect to mention that most of these are cars and most driving is in the city.

They also spent $18 billion on advertising in 2003, mainly to push consumer interest toward bigger, more powerful vehicles.

Effectively telling consumers to buy a compact when faced with high gas prices does not help the mother of three who needs a minivan to safely buckle her children into their car seats. With gasoline prices’ cutting into consumers’ wallets, and the United States’s spending more than a half-million dollars every minute to buy oil from other countries, the time for excuses has long past.

The few times that the auto industry has been asked to step up to the plate, it has hit a home run. This rule making represented an opportunity to help consumers struggling with high gas costs, improve energy security, and make the U.S. auto industry more competitive in a future of continued high gas prices.

Instead of taking decisive action, though, the administration watched the pitch go by _ and thus condemned drivers to continued pain at the pump.

(David Friedman is research director of the Clean Vehicles Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists.)