Bush's Earth Day announcement is no reason to celebrate

Just because the new proposed rule on fuel economy announced today – Earth Day – is better than expected from the Bush administration, don’t start dancing in the streets just yet. Gas prices are out of control and rising. Most Americans have no choice but to drive to get to work, buy groceries, take their kids to school and perform the basic tasks of everyday living. This new proposal (details in Ken Thomas’ AP report) is not the aggressive, forward-looking policy that consumers need, and it is years behind.

Granted, the proposal sets standards for the next five model years at a slightly higher rate than the new energy law essentially requires – about 4.5 percent per year for the combined car and truck fleets, as opposed to the 4 percent that would satisfy the law. This means that about two-thirds of the fuel economy gains required by law to be achieved in 10 years will be set in the first five years. Given the Bush administration’s abysmal record on consumer and environmental issues, the last thing anyone would expect is that it would do more than the bare minimum.

But keep in mind that the administration is following the mandate of Congress, which caved in to automaker pressure and set a weak target of 35 miles per gallon (mpg) by 2020 for the combined fleets, which is far less than automakers could and should be achieving. In fact, the 31.6 mpg that the combined fleets must reach by 2015 under the new proposal is just more proof that these targets are insufficient. Other countries already have set targets that exceed the U.S. 2020 goal – Japan requires more than 35 mpg by 2010; the European Union is ramping up to as much as 52 mpg by 2012; and even China will require 38 mpg for 2008.

Moreover, the 2020 goal is based on an outdated 2002 National Academy of the Sciences study, which estimated that automakers could make a 10 mpg jump in fuel economy in 10 years – and that was without hybrids and other new technologies. Yet the 2007 U.S. law gives companies in our market 13 years to achieve that goal. It’s a small wonder they can exceed it.

Consumers aren’t necessarily going to receive the full benefit of even these modest increases. The standards I set when I was administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) applied equally to all automakers: When the car standard was 27.5 mpg, for example, that standard applied to each automaker. These new standards are set on a complex sliding scale that will result in each automaker having its own individual target, creating an unadministrable mess. The old approach worked. This new scheme, cooked up in backrooms by Vice President Dick Cheney’s staff and White House cronies, is a recipe for disaster and will reward automakers who produce a lot of large gas-guzzlers with lower individual targets.

Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters is calling the new fuel economy proposal “ambitious, but achievable.” It’s more accurate to call this proposal modest and already achieved everywhere but the U.S.