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Proposed Fuel Economy Measure Shows Dick Cheney’s Heavy Hand

Sept. 6, 2007

Proposed Fuel Economy Measure Shows Dick Cheney’s Heavy Hand

E-mail and Calendar Records Show White House Played Lead Role in Crafting Sliding Scale Measure

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A proposed overhaul of fuel economy standards was created not by the federal agency in charge of regulating fuel economy, but instead by Vice President Dick Cheney’s office and White House officials, a new report from Public Citizen shows.

At stake is a proposal, which has already been published as a regulation applied to light trucks and is currently pending in legislative form in the Senate version of the energy bill, to eliminate the current corporate average model for fuel economy standards and replace it with a “sliding scale” that sets varying fuel economy standards based on the size of the vehicle.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has claimed that its officials came up with the sliding scale. But e-mail records and calendar entries obtained by Public Citizen show significant influence on the development of the sliding scale by senior administration officials, including staff from the Office of the Vice President.

The sliding scale was developed during a series of meetings that began in 2001 and continued at least through the summer of 2003, the records show. At least 45 meetings can be reconstructed from notes and e-mail exchanges between administration officials. In fact, the records show that NHTSA played a subservient role to White House and vice presidential higher-ups. Some meetings appear to have excluded NHTSA staff altogether.

Attending the meetings were an abundance of staff from the Office of Management and Budget, a White House agency that reviews and orders changes to regulations developed by agencies, as well as many other high-level White House offices such as the Council on Environmental Quality, the National Economic Council and the Office of Policy Development. At every meeting that can be tracked down, at least one member of Cheney’s staff also was deeply involved.

The presence of such high-level staff from the White House and vice president’s office in drafting any rule is highly unusual. Moreover, the meetings apparently took place primarily in White House offices rather than at the Department of Transportation, again underscoring the administration’s leading role in developing the rule.

“Dick Cheney has used his unprecedented power to interfere in many policies, especially environmental and energy policies, to the public’s detriment,” said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen. Claybrook was administrator of NHTSA from 1977 to 1981 and set the first-ever Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards.

“The Cheney sliding scale is bad news for consumers,” Claybrook added. “It definitely fits Cheney’s pattern of using behind-the-scenes influence to gut environmental measures.”

The sliding scale would be highly detrimental to the goal of reducing America’s use of and dependence on oil. Instead of requiring the fuel economy of all vehicles in a manufacturer’s fleet to attain a specific mile-per-gallon average – thereby creating an incentive for automakers to offset gas guzzlers by producing more fuel-efficient vehicles – the new system would set mile-per-gallon targets for each size of vehicle. Companies that produce many large SUVs would have lower mile-per-gallon requirements than those that produce proportionally more passenger cars.

The scheme is typical of the Bush administration’s “market-based” approach to regulation, which favors eliminating requirements and giving companies free reign.

“The scheme is sheer folly,” said Robert Shull, Public Citizen’s deputy director for auto safety and regulatory policy, who co-authored the report. “The Cheney scale is the last thing we need, especially given that tough CAFE standards would be such a smart solution to move us away from our dangerous addiction to foreign oil.”

The sliding scale was not in an energy bill passed in late July by the House of Representatives, which separated fuel economy provisions from the bill and deferred the discussion for the fall. However, an eleventh-hour amendment to the Senate version of the energy bill would require the administration to eliminate the corporate average model and replace it with the Cheney scale. The measures now are to be reconciled by a conference committee.

READ the report.