Senate Takes Huge Step Backward in Fuel Economy Vote

The Senate today passed by voice vote an energy bill amendment that weakens an already weak fuel economy section.

Posted:  6/21/2006

Statement on the Fuel Economy Language Passed by the Senate

About the base bill: its pluses and minuses

More about the energy bill


The amendment was ultimately passed when the Senate voted to pass the energy bill.

No Mandatory Fuel Economy Increase

Although supporters claim that the Senate has now voted to require automakers to achieve fuel economy for cars and trucks combined to reach 35 mpg by 2020, in truth the effect of the fuel economy amendment is that nothing is mandatory at all about the 35 mpg target.  Already too low and too far off into the future, the target is also riddled with loopholes, such as an option for the administration to set lower targets based on a cost-benefit analysis.

Cost-benefit analysis has been used and abused for decades by industry to weaken regulatory standards. It is an arbitrary game that has been rigged to bias policymaking in industry’s favor, to the detriment of consumers, public health, safety, and the environment. Explicitly adding cost-benefit analysis into the fuel economy law would be a huge step backward, and it would make fuel economy standards driven not by public need but by biased bean-counting.

Even if the government did set standards to reach the 35 mpg targets, they are still too little too late. We could and should expect much better than 35 mpg 13 years from now. Automakers have improved fuel efficiency by 30% in the last 20 years, but they have devoted those gains to weight, performance, and luxury add-ons instead of fuel economy. If all vehicles caught up with best-in-class CAFE performers, cars would achieve nearly 37 mpg, while trucks would average 27 mpg. In other words, right now the best-in-class performers reach a combined 31 mpg. Setting a target of only 4 mpg more 13 years from now is a joke.

Eliminates Aggressivity Standard

The base bill would have required DOT to develop a standard addressing compatibility and aggressivity.  Compatibility describes how well two vehicles match in a crash; aggressivity describes characteristics like unnecessary grille bars and bull bars, which do not protect the occupants of vehicles that have them but are fatal to occupants of all other vehicles in a crash.  This language was one of the few entirely positive features of the base bill.

The Stevens amendment strips all references to aggressivity from this language.  Improving compatibility alone can be achieved by design changes such as lowering bumper heights and using lightweight advanced materials — without addressing characteristics that still leave the vehicle fatally aggressive in a collision with other vehicles.  Improving aggressivity requires automakers to design vehicles with the risk to other people on the road in mind. 

Having a compatibility standard is a very important improvement.  Taking away the aggressivity language, however, is a serious setback.

Makes Attribute-Based Sliding Scale Standards Mandatory

The current law sets fuel economy standards in terms of a corporate average.  The corporate average is a boon to consumers:  it means that automakers can continue to produce huge gas guzzlers, but they must give consumers highly fuel efficient options in order to balance out and achieve their corporate average.

The administration has been clamoring to replace the fair, across-the-board corporate average with a complex attribute-based sliding scale.  It has already done just that in a 2005 rule changing the way fuel economy is applied to light trucks, but that rule was immediately challenged by consumer and environmental groups in a court challenge that is still pending. A sliding-scale scheme incentivizes manufacturers to up-size vehicles to qualify for less stringent standards. This incentive jeopardizes safety, as upsizing may lead to more aggressive vehicles. It also presents the risk that oil savings from increased CAFE standards will erode or even evaporate.  Manufacturers under the sliding scale system essentially set their own standards by adjusting their product plans and fleet mix. 

Both the base bill and the Pryor/Levin amendment would have given DOT the option to implement attribute-based sliding scales. What the Senate passed went a step further by requiring DOT to do away with corporate average standards.