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Fuel Economy Proposals Inadequate to Ease Pain at the Pump

June 20, 2007

Fuel Economy Proposals Inadequate to Ease Pain at the Pump

Statement of Joan Claybrook, President, Public Citizen*

As the Senate gears up to vote on fuel economy, it is unclear how many lawmakers will choose to keep the underlying Senate bill intact or replace it with the automaker-supported Pryor/Levin proposal. One thing is clear: If this is a race for real fuel efficiency standards, we’re only crawling to the finish line.

Neither proposal sets ambitious targets for raising fuel economy standards to ween the nation off its reliance on foreign oil and save consumers at the pump. The base bill calls for 35 mpg for the combined car and truck fleet by 2020, with excuses built in for the government to set lower standards, while the Pryor/Levin proposal sets its targets as 36 mpg for cars by 2022 and 30 mpg for trucks by 2025, albeit with discretion for the government to set higher – but not lower – standards.

Meanwhile, best-in-class fuel economy performers on the road today are already well on their way to achieving fuel economy in excess of these targets. If all vehicles were getting their best-in-class fuel economy, the average fuel economy for cars today would be nearly 37 miles per gallon, and the average fuel economy for light trucks would be 27 miles per gallon. In other words, with no change in the market share of light trucks, a car/truck fleet fuel economy of 31 miles per gallon is already being achieved by the best-in-class fuel economy performers. We can do much better much sooner than either the base bill or the Pryor/Levin proposal if all manufacturers achieved the best in each class of vehicles.

Each proposal comes with its own destructive changes to the law. For example, the base bill would explicitly allow the government to set fuel economy standards based on cost-benefit analysis, which has been used and abused for decades to weaken regulatory standards in industry’s favor. 

The Pryor/Levin amendment avoids that harmful step, but it is no better – and, in some ways, is much worse. Among other things, it expands the dual-fuel loophole to allow industry to paper over its failure to achieve fuel economy standards. The loophole gives automakers 1.2 mpg in credits for producing flex-fuel vehicles capable of running on E-85 – even though the fuel is hard to obtain and such vehicles run on E-85 less than one percent of the time. And an enormously positive feature of the base bill – a demand for the government to set a compatibility standard that would force gigantic, aggressively designed SUVs to become more compatible with everyday cars in a crash – is absent from the Pryor/Levin amendment.

It’s still too close to call whether the base bill or the Pryor/Levin substitute will prevail. This much, at least, is clear: One of these proposals will win. Consumers will not. We urge the Senate to think harder about global warming, gas prices and the effect of gas imports on our balance of trade and to amend the legislation to achieve real change.

For more detailed information about best-in-class fuel economy performers, click here. For a detailed comparison and analysis of the two proposals, click here.

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