WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Congress is finalizing a deal that would raise the fuel economy standards for most U.S. cars and trucks for the first time in more than 30 years.On the surface, this proposal seems like a great idea, it is (unfortunately) another result of the knuckleheads in Washington trying to fix something they don't understand.
But the bill also contains several significant loopholes that would allow auto companies to get around the new limits.
The centerpiece of the bill is a requirement that would raise the corporate average fuel economy standard, known as CAFE, from 27.5 miles per gallon for cars and 22.2 mpg for trucks to 35 mpg fleet-wide by 2020.
The Senate passed the mandate in June, but the House has not yet voted. Congressional aides familiar with the negotiations said House leaders are hoping to work out final language this week and vote next week.
Large "work trucks" like the Dodge Ram, the Ford F-150 and the Chevrolet Silverado would be exempt from the 35 mpg standard, according to sources involved in the negotiations.
Automakers will get credits to count against their fleet-wide average for selling "flex fuel" cars that are able to use alternative fuels or gasoline. Although U.S. manufacturers have built millions of flex fuel cars, ethanol is actually used in only about 1.5 percent of them, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Most continue to run on gasoline, the group found. Ethanol is not widely available to car owners.
Despite these loopholes, backers of the bill say it brings a significant change that will benefit consumers. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, chairman of the House Select Committee on Global Warming, said in an interview that the higher standard "will be a huge victory. It won't be something, however, that will stop us in the years ahead continuing to look at ways to continue upon that further."
House Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell, D-Michigan, who has been a key negotiator on the compromise bill and defender of auto industry interests, is pushing for some significant changes to the Senate version.
In an interview Wednesday with a Detroit television station, Dingell said he's supportive of the new standard, but stressed "we've got to do it in a way that doesn't destroy our industry or manufacturing."
Dingell would like to include a provision that would build in job protections for U.S. autoworkers, requiring U.S. auto companies to continue to manufacture a certain percentage of their vehicles in the United States.
Dingell also wants to create separate standards for car and truck fleets.
"We have to address the Senate bill to make sure we don't combine light trucks and automobiles in a way that will destroy them," he said.
According to a recent analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit environmental group, if the 35 mpg limit was implemented, it would translate into a savings for consumers of $25 billion at the pump in 2020.
The bill will also include a requirement to increase the production of biofuels like ethanol to 36 billion gallons by 2022. According to the Department of Energy, the United States produced 4 billion gallons of biofuels in 2005.
"Our goal is over the next 10 to 15 years [to] see a revolution that results in a dramatic increase in SUVs and automobiles that can use these new fuels and the number of Americans that can use them," Markey said, "so that we can back out more millions of barrels of oil that come from OPEC every day."Congressional Republicans point out the proposal will do nothing to lower gas prices in the short term.
Now don't get me wrong; I think that cutting down on fossil fuel consumption is a great idea. It will definitely cut down on pollution and, while I don't think it's as big a crisis as Al Gore does, global warming is an issue that needs to be addressed and corrected soon.
Unfortunately, while the proposal looks good on paper, It will do virtually nothing to limit greenhouse gas output. there are a number of issues. First and foremost is the fact that the standard will not affect the millions of cars already on the road. My '98 Honda won't suddenly be putting out 35mpg when this bill passes, it's not physically possible. New cars make up a small fraction of the cars on the road today, and while the standard will begin to have an affect down the road, nothing significant will happen for years (something the article points out).
Second, the fact that the automakers can get credits for creating flex-fuel and hybrid vehicles that will lower their individual fleets. I see major exploitation of this taking place; all an automaker has to do is engineer all of its cars to run on ethanol and they've effectively gotten around the ban.
Another problem is that ethanol is not the be-all end-all savior that Washington thinks it is. First off, it takes more energy to convert corn into ethanol than ethanol actually puts out, and the energy used for the conversion usually comes from a conventionally (fossil-fuel) powered source. Second, cars that run on biofuel don't get better mileage than cars that run on gasoline; some cars even perform worse. Third, it's expensive; costing nearly as much as standard diesel fuel (which due to new diesel standards is now more expensive than regular gas). Forth, biofuel production is cutting into the growth of grain that is normally used for food. Lastly, despite the plethora of flex-fuel vehicles, ethanol is not widely available; there are just over 1400 gas stations nationwide that supply ethanol. Most of these are located in the Midwest; Illinois has 500 stations and Minnesota has 300, but most states have less than 20 and nine have no ethanol fueling stations.
Finally, raising the fuel economy limits do nothing if we as Americans do not curb our consumption of gasoline. Even with gas over $3.00 a gallon, we're still buying gas-guzzling SUVs. Doing something like imposing a gas tax, even if it's just $.10 or $.15 a gallon, will drastically cut down on consumption.
On paper, this proposal looks like a brilliant idea that is sure to cut down on pollution, but unfortunately it's yet another example of our (not-so) good-hearted politicians in Washington trying to come up with a solution when they don't even understand the problem. If Congress really wants to make a difference, it should start educating itself on the issues before tackling them.