June 21, 2007

Senate Takes Huge Step Backward in Fuel Economy Vote

Statement of Joan Claybrook, President, Public Citizen*

The Senate’s vote today to pass Sen. Ted Stevens’(R-Alaska) amendment on fuel economy is a true disappointment. This is not a win, nor is it a step forward for fuel economy, consumers or the environment. This is a step backward.

The Stevens amendment now mandates what the Bush administration has been clamoring for and what consumers and the environmental movement have opposed with litigation: replacing the fair, across-the-board corporate average standard with a complex, size-based sliding scale that allows manufacturers to set their own standards based on their product plans.

Backers say it would require cars and trucks to reach a combined 35 miles per gallon by 2020. What they are pointing to is only a symbolic victory.  In truth, there is nothing mandatory at all about the 35 mpg target. The Bush administration – and all subsequent administrations – will be able to go below 35 mpg if they produce a cost-benefit analysis justifying a lower goal. Cost-benefit analysis has been used and abused for decades to weaken standards for consumers, public health and the environment. It would be far too easy for the current and future administrations to circumvent this supposed victory. Allowing the executive branch to set fuel economy standards based on cost-benefit analysis is a giant step backward.

Even if it were mandatory, the 35 mpg target is not strong enough. The best-in-class fuel economy performers on the road today are already well on their way to achieving fuel economy in excess of this target. We can do much better much sooner.

 

The measure also takes one of the few truly good pieces of the base bill – a requirement for a standard to improve compatibility between larger and smaller vehicles in crashes and reduce the aggressivity of larger vehicles – and weakens it by removing all reference to 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.

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. Omitting this language is a serious setback.

Finally, this vote means that the Senate has now explicitly added cost-benefit analysis into the fuel economy law. Cost-benefit analysis has been used and abused for decades to weaken standards for consumers, public health and the environment. Allowing the Bush administration to set fuel economy standards based on cost-benefit analysis is a giant step backward.

* Joan Claybrook was administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) from 1977-1981.