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Facing Reality Is Job One for Automakers and Congress

June 6, 2007

Facing Reality Is Job One for Automakers and Congress

Statement of Joan Claybrook, President, Public Citizen*

The U.S. automakers are meeting with Congress today to fight any real improvement in fuel economy.  Consumers everywhere should be outraged that Detroit is looking for more leniency after a billion dollars’ worth of handouts, decades of not having to make any strides at all in fuel economy, and now pending legislation that has already been so compromised that automakers may never have to achieve anything at all.

What are the automakers opposing?  Currently, the truck fleet achieves an average fuel economy of 21.8 mpg, and the car fleet reaches 30 mpg (based on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s   calculations). The fuel economy bill that was recently approved by a Senate committee sets a standard of merely 35 mpg 13 years hence, which is 5 mpg less than the Senate was poised in 1990 to require by 2000. Additionally, the Senate bill gives the government excuses not to reach 35 mpg – if the target or a mandatory increase is not “cost-effective” – so that it’s not even a fully mandatory target at all. The excuse of “cost-effectiveness” is a real gift to industry because it means that policy will be determined by cost-benefit analysis, which has been used and abused for decades to weaken regulatory standards in industry’s favor. Clearly, Congress has already gone out of its way to give and give and give to the auto industry.

But now the Big Three want Congress to give away the whole store. They’re backing very weak proposals – a Senate proposal backed by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), and a House bill recently introduced by Rep. Rick Boucher    (D-Va.) – that would let the Big Three completely off the hook. Sen. Levin’s proposal would let the automakers squirm out of their fuel economy requirements by just making promises that they will eventually produce advanced vehicles. Meanwhile, Rep. Boucher’s bill demands only 32.5 mpg for the combined car and truck fleet by 2022, and it has a provision that would kill the ability of states to demand reductions in vehicle greenhouse gas emissions (reversing the recent Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts v. EPA clarifying that the Environmental Protection Agency and the states have such authority). And of course, each of these Detroit-backed bills comes stocked with giveaways and handouts to the automakers.

Ford used to advertise its cars with the slogan “Quality is job one.” Now it’s time for Congress and the automakers both to realize that facing reality is job one. The reality is that with mile-high gas prices still continuing to rise, consumers cannot afford any more delays in fuel economy. The reality is that the U.S. automakers are in deep financial trouble because they have successfully blocked fuel economy requirements and have simultaneously refused to invest in new technologies and are being out-competed in the marketplace by foreign automakers’ hybrids and far more fuel efficient vehicles. Unless there is a firm requirement for a locked-in increase in fuel economy standards, U.S. auto manufacturers will be left in the dust by foreign manufacturers who are forced to innovate under the rules recently set in Japan calling for 40 mpg by 2015, and the European Union’s standards, which for 2002 were 37.2 mpg. The U.S. Congress must face the reality that keeping the nation’s fuel economy standards behind the times is harming consumers, workers and the Detroit companies that fail to look ahead.

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