CAFE Bills Brewing in Congress

At long last, an increase in car and light truck fuel economy standards has passed the U.S. Senate. The Senate energy bill (an amendment to H.R.6) raises the standards to 35 miles per gallon by 2020—up from today’s average of 24.6 miles per gallon. But the bill also hands the Department of Transportation discretion to lower these targets if they’re not “cost-effective,” a major weakness given DOT’s record of timid fuel economy rulemaking.

Standards set following the Senate provision would be “attribute-based,” so that the fuel economy required of a given vehicle would depend upon an attribute such as size. Manufacturers’ fleets would consequently each have a different average fuel economy requirement, reflecting the size distribution of their vehicle offerings. This fact did not keep manufacturers from making the misleading claim that the bill would spell the end of large truck production.

The Senate bill also extends fuel economy standards to commercial trucks, which consume 2.3 million barrels of oil per day and are currently subject to no efficiency standards at all. A target of 4% per year increase in fuel economy for these vehicles fell by the wayside during the floor debate, but the establishment of testing protocols and standards for heavy trucks is in itself a step forward.

Now the House is once more the focus of the fuel economy debate. In March, Representatives Markey (D-MA) and Platts (R-PA) introduced a bill (H.R. 1506) raising standards to 35 miles per gallon by 2018. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell (D-MI) is no fan of the bill, which consequently is likely to be reintroduced on the House floor later this month, as a larger energy package moves forward.

A competing bill offered by Hill (D-IN) and Terry (N-NE) has drawn the support of automakers, who are seeking to head off a repeat of the Senate action. Hill-Terry calls for an average fuel economy of 32 miles per gallon by 2022—four years late and three miles per gallon short of the Markey-Platts bill. The Hill-Terry bill also extends to 2020 the dual-fuel vehicle credit, which in effect lowers the fuel economy of vehicles sold each year by up to 1.2 miles per gallon. Under this credit, ethanol-capable vehicles currently bring their manufacturers fuel economy credits that allow the production of more gas guzzlers, despite the fact that ethanol-capable vehicles continue to operate almost entirely on gasoline.

Compare the oil savings that would follow from the various bills discussed here.