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A Consumer’s Guide to the 2007 State of the Union Address

Jan. 24, 2006  

A Consumer’s Guide to the 2007 State of the Union Address:

After seven years of State of the Union addresses from the Bush administration, the American public has learned that President Bush’s policy recommendations are often based on misinformation. As such, Public Citizen has prepared the following guide to the 2007 speech so consumers can get complete and accurate information about the issues.

Energy Policy and Global Warming:

What Bush Said …

“It’s in our vital interest to diversify America’s energy supply – the way forward is through technology. We must continue changing the way America generates electric power, by even greater use of clean coal technology, solar and wind energy, and clean, safe nuclear power. We need to press on with battery research for plug-in and hybrid vehicles, and expand the use of clean diesel vehicles and biodiesel fuel. We must continue investing in new methods of producing ethanol using everything from wood chips to grasses, to agricultural wastes…

Achieving these ambitious goals will dramatically reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but it’s not going to eliminate it. And so as we continue to diversify our fuel supply, we must step up domestic oil production in environmentally sensitive ways. And to further protect America against severe disruptions to our oil supply, I ask Congress to double the current capacity of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

America is on the verge of technological breakthroughs that will enable us to live our lives less dependent on oil. And these technologies will help us be better stewards of the environment, and they will help us to confront the serious challenge of global climate change.”

What Public Citizen Says…

President Bush advocated subsidies for more ethanol, new coal and nuclear power plants, and reprocessing of spent fuel as part of his solution for climate change. Despite scientific consensus concluding that global warming is rapidly affecting our environment and is caused by human activity, Bush has rejected classifying carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions as pollutants and has resisted proposals to “cap” carbon emissions.

Nuclear power, which requires dirty uranium mining and results in dangerous radioactive waste, is neither clean nor renewable. Nor can nuclear power help reduce the nation’s dependence on oil.  Sinking even more public money into coal and nuclear power diverts precious federal resources away from solar, wind and other renewable energies and efficiency measures – the only viable means for truly addressing climate change.

Investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency can be fulfilled by taking the approach of recently passed HR 6, in which the House voted to revoke $14 billion in oil subsidies and dedicate that money to investing in clean energy and energy efficiency. But Bush has threatened a veto on HR 6, showing that he remains beholden to Big Oil and other polluters.

Taxpayers already pay $2 billion a year to producers of ethanol, which is neither a clean nor renewable fuel. Manufacturers that make vehicles that can use either ethanol or gasoline, known as dual-fuel vehicles, are allowed to meet lower fuel economy standards, even if their vehicles are never filled with ethanol. Ethanol is not widely available throughout the country, and because it cannot be shipped in oil pipelines and there are infrastructure difficulties in transporting and selling ethanol at fueling stations, its widespread use is impractical.

Motor vehicles account for a large portion of the nation’s oil consumption, yet Bush is likely to request authority from Congress to issue fuel economy standards for cars on a sliding scale so that the larger the vehicle, the less fuel economy it has to achieve. This would be a perverse result. Along with a consortium of environmental and other groups, Public Citizen opposes this proposal.

The Bush administration should issue long overdue Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, up to the maximum feasible of 40 mpg by 2015, which would dramatically reduce the need to import foreign oil and save consumers at the gas pump. The only fuel economy standards issued for cars – other than minor adjustments – were issued in 1977 when Joan Claybrook was NHTSA administrator.

Fuel Economy:

What Bush Said…

“We made a lot of progress, thanks to good policies here in Washington and the strong response of the market. And now even more dramatic advances are within reach. Tonight, I ask Congress to join me in pursuing a great goal. Let us build on the work we’ve done and reduce gasoline usage in the United States by 20 percent in the next 10 years. When we do that we will have cut our total imports by the equivalent of three-quarters of all the oil we now import from the Middle East.

To reach this goal, we must increase the supply of alternative fuels, by setting a mandatory fuels standard to require 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels in 2017 – and that is nearly five times the current target. At the same time, we need to reform and modernize fuel economy standards for cars the way we did for light trucks – and conserve up to 8.5 billion more gallons of gasoline by 2017.”

What Public Citizen Says…

Be wary of the president’s “bold initiative.”  Two years ago, Public Citizen exposed a series of intensive, high-level meetings spearheaded by the White House and the Office of the Vice President, which resulted in a proposal to gut CAFE standards for light trucks. The Bush administration put the finishing touches in 2006 on the final rule – instead of a fair, across-the-board standard applying equally throughout that segment of the vehicle fleet, the Bush administration changed light truck CAFE into a system of calculating CAFE standards for vehicles based on their “footprint” – a rough measure of size based on wheelbase measurements. Vehicles with larger “footprints” would be allowed to comply with lower CAFE standards than vehicles with small “footprints.”

This system of calculating CAFE is fundamentally flawed and undermines improvement in overall fleet fuel economy by creating incentives for manufacturers to continue to build larger vehicles that are subject to lower fuel economy standards. 

In this year’s State of the Union address, the president mentioned taking this bad idea and extending it to cars. If those insufficient standards are expanded to the entire vehicle fleet, this would serve to further erode fleet fuel economy, and the nation would be more dependent than ever on foreign oil. The CAFE program – which saved Detroit in the energy crisis of the 1970s – would be effectively destroyed.

The Bush administration will probably claim that these changes are needed to promote safety. But it is a myth that fuel economy compromises safety. The common defense given for a weight-based system is that it prevents manufacturers from reducing vehicle weight, which a flawed study by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) researcher Charles Kahane wrongly asserted is a safety hazard. This defense is irrelevant for several reasons:

  • Increases in CAFE can be achieved without reducing vehicle weight; in the 1980s, when manufacturers were building more fuel efficient vehicles, only 15 percent of improved fuel economy came from decreasing weight, and weight decreases were in the heaviest vehicles.
  • Vehicle design is more important to occupant safety than vehicle weight. If the Bush administration is truly concerned about vehicle safety, it should stop undermining efforts to require automakers to build safer vehicles.
  • In heavier vehicles, weight reduction has less of an impact on safety and more of an impact on fuel economy, so encouraging the down-weighting of heavier vehicles achieves significant fuel savings, while it does not make sense for lighter vehicles.

Increases in CAFE should be expressed in miles per gallon (mpg) and reflected across the entire fleet. This is the only way for vehicle fuel economy to make up the ground it has lost since 1987, when overall fleet fuel economy peaked.

Improving overall fleet CAFE is vitally important, and expanding the ability of manufacturers to find loopholes around the system undermines these improvements.  Expanding these loopholes to passenger cars would further erode the incentive for manufacturers to find innovative ways to improve fuel economy, and fuel economy will continue to stagnate.

If the president’s goal is to reduce dependence on oil in the transportation sector, he should promote fleet-wide increases in CAFE. A fleet-wide increase to 35 miles per gallon would save approximately 1.1 million barrels of oil per day. A more aggressive, but still achievable, increase to 40 miles per gallon would save 3.4 million barrels per day.

Access to the Courts and Civil Justice:

What Bush Said…

“We need to reduce costs and medical errors with better information technology. We will encourage price transparency. And to protect good doctors from junk lawsuits, we need to pass medical liability reform. In all we do, we must remember that the best health care decisions are made not by government and insurance companies, but by patients and their doctors.”

What Public Citizen Says…

Over the past several years there has been a relentless attempt by corporations to evade accountability and shift the cost and risk of their misconduct onto individuals and communities. Nowhere has this agenda been more evident than in the drive to prevent citizens from having their day in court when harmed by corporate negligence.

In 2006, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health published findings that revealed that “portraits of a malpractice system that is stricken with frivolous litigation are overblown.”  In fact, new research by Public Citizen demonstrates that the real crisis in medical malpractice is not one of so-called “junk lawsuits” but one of a serious lack of physician oversight – only six percent of doctors account for more than 58 percent of all malpractice claims. Since 1991, preventable medical errors cause between 44,000 and 98,000 deaths each year in hospital settings.

In last year’s State of the Union, President Bush promoted this policy of limiting patients’ legal rights by suggesting that access to ob-gyn care is threatened – a cynical attempt at frightening women and families. But earlier this week, Public Citizen revealed that the president’s statements were, once again, based on misinformation. The truth is, access to ob-gyn care is improving, even in states the American Medical Association claims are “in crisis.”

The president should address the real medical problems the nation faces – the high incidence of preventable medical errors and the lack of doctor discipline for the small group of doctors that account for the majority of malpractice payments.