New Fuel Economy Rule a Slippery Slope of Oil Dependence, Will Not Reduce Consumption

March 29, 2006

New Fuel Economy Rule a Slippery Slope of Oil Dependence, Will Not Reduce Consumption

Statement of Joan Claybrook, President, Public Citizen*

The fuel economy final rule issued today by the U.S. Department of Transportation is exactly the opposite of what is needed to make a significant dent in U.S. oil consumption. The agency has created a slippery slope on which larger vehicles can meet lower fuel economy standards than smaller light trucks. The problems with the new rule are many:

  • The sliding scale system creates an incentive for manufacturers to make more large and aggressive gas-guzzlers;
  • It allows automakers to choose between two compliance options from now to 2010, undermining the administration’s claims that there will be oil savings because automakers will choose the less costly, and less fuel efficient, option; and
  • Starting in 2011, it includes some SUVs above 8,500 pounds, but excludes pickup trucks greater than 8,500 pounds, which are the biggest gas-guzzlers on the road.

The new “reforms” represent only incremental changes from today’s standards. For instance, fleets in 2006 must achieve an average of 21.6 mpg, and 2007 vehicles must achieve 22.2 mpg. If automakers follow the new rule in its “reformed” version, the overall projected fuel economy standards for light trucks will be merely 22.7 mpg in 2008, 23.4 mpg in 2009 and 23.7 mpg in 2010. (If they choose the traditional, or “unreformed” system, automakers need only make their fleets achieve 22.5 mpg in 2008, 23.1 mpg in 2009 and 23.5 mpg in 2010.)  

Automakers dramatically increased the size of vehicles over recent years, stocking them with much larger engines and jackrabbit starts and producing fleets with bloated vehicles that are far less fuel-efficient than they could be. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s “reform” program is corporate welfare for gas guzzlers, as it allows the worst performers to continue lagging behind. Each automaker will have its own target for compliance – and can choose to make gas guzzlers and to cut out more efficient vehicles altogether.  In contrast, the current system of a fleetwide average provides strong incentives for the worst vehicles in a fleet to improve to meet a common standard.

The inevitable outcome of allowing these two options between 2008 and 2010 is that consumers will see a mix of the reformed and traditional systems – the worst of all possible worlds. And for 2008 and beyond, the complex new sliding scale, and the secrecy of automakers’ product plans, will submerge any accountability for achieving fuel savings in an oil slick of confusion.

Currently, technology exists to achieve 40 mpg fleetwide for cars and trucks. We can and must do much better. Transportation needs constitute 60 percent of our national oil consumption. We are exposed to continuing dependence on unstable regimes abroad to support our increasing addiction to oil. In the face of these serious threats to our national security and environmental health, it is immoral to achieve anything less than a dramatic increase in our vehicle fuel economy standards.

Even more galling, the administration wastes 50 pages of the new rule attempting to gut California’s new efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions. The Bush administration should stop trying to suppress states that are doing the right thing on global warming, and start leading instead.

In coddling automakers, the administration is letting the addicts determine the cure. Rather than a confusing and complicated slippery slope, America needs the strong medicine that meaningful fuel economy targets are meant to provide. 

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

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For more information about fuel economy, click here.