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New Fuel Economy Standards Ignore Potential for Huge Cuts in U.S. Oil Demand, Won’t Provide Relief From Sky-High Gas Prices Now – or Ever

Aug. 23, 2005

New Fuel Economy Standards Ignore Potential for Huge Cuts in U.S. Oil Demand, Won’t Provide Relief From Sky-High Gas Prices Now – or Ever

Statement of Joan Claybrook, President, Public Citizen

Once again, the Bush administration has adopted the ostrich strategy – sticking its head in the sand to avoid facing up to a problem that has very serious consequences for our economy and foreign policy. At a time when some Americans are paying almost $3 for a gallon of gasoline and our troops are dying in the oil fields of the Middle East, the administration is doing next to nothing to reduce our insatiable thirst for oil.

The new fuel economy standards announced today for light trucks have been in the works for years but are too meager to affect oil prices now or in the future. But they are carefully designed to appease automakers, who resist innovation, and the oil companies, which are raking in record profits. The fact that the largest SUVs, including Hummers, will be exempt from any fuel standards speaks volumes about this administration’s priorities.

What we need is visionary leadership, not a wimpy response to a national crisis. We know strong fuel economy standards work. They drastically cut oil demand in the 1970s and 1980s – and they would work again if we had strong leadership in the White House to make it happen.

George W. Bush’s wealthy friends and family might not mind paying a few more dollars at the pumps, but many, many working Americans are feeling real pain – and it will only get worse in the years ahead unless we, as a nation, make a strong commitment to reducing our use of oil. An overall increase in fuel economy for light trucks to 23.5 miles per gallon by 2010, which is what this proposal envisions, just won’t get the job done. Light trucks are already required to get 22.2 mpg by the 2007 model year. Thus the increase is about 0.4 mpg per year.

The overall design of this plan is seriously flawed. For example, it places light trucks – which includes pickups, vans and SUVs – into six different categories instead of just one, and it creates weaker standards for the largest of those vehicles.

In addition to these meager standards, in the recently enacted energy bill, President Bush secured an extension of the alternative fuel credits for auto manufacturers until 2014, even if consumers never use the alternative fuel (generally ethanol). This gives manufacturers a huge gift – a reduction of almost 1 mpg in the fuel economy standards.

At the announcement of the proposed standards, NHTSA Administrator Jeffrey Runge said some automakers responded to earlier fuel economy standards by making vehicles lighter and less sturdy, and that the new system will enhance safety. There is no evidence to support that statement. In fact, the 1977 fuel economy standards caused a reduction in the size of the largest vehicles, making highways safer overall. This proposed standard, by creating weaker standards for larger SUVs and exempting the very biggest, just encourages the production of the largest gas-guzzlers. This will have the added impact of making our highways more hazardous to most motorists. The only safety in this proposal is for the automotive executives’ bonuses.

We are at an energy crossroads in this country. Despite vast improvements in efficiency technology, the most fuel-efficient fleet rolled off the assembly lines in 1986 – almost two decades ago. Since then we have been backsliding as a nation, increasing engine power instead of vehicle efficiency, and now the nation’s fleet of vehicles has the lowest overall fuel economy in 20 years.

Now is not the time to be timid. We can do much better than this pathetic proposal by an administration that has already shown that its loyalties lie with Big Oil and Detroit.


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

For more information about fuel economy, click here.