Senate Fumbles Fuel Economy

March 14, 2002

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Senate yesterday squandered its best opportunity in a decade to reduce U.S. oil dependence by voting 62-38 to pass an energy bill amendment delegating the setting of fuel economy standards by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, an arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation. NHTSA has failed to increase the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards significantly above Congressionally mandated levels in the 26 years that the program has existed, and the agency is not likely to change course now. The fuel economy of new vehicles peaked in 1987 and has since declined to below 1981 levels. Declining fuel economy makes the transport sector the weakest link in the U.S. energy economy: other major sectors such as buildings and industry continue to show efficiency gains.

Higher CAFE standards would have saved the United States about 2.5 million barrels a day (the amount we now import from the Middle East) by the year 2020. The standards represented close to half of the total energy savings of the Senate energy package. "The Senate has not learned much about energy security since September 11," said ACEEE Deputy Director Bill Prindle. "This fumble not only forfeits the energy security game to OPEC, it also puts the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions further out of reach."

Despite the finding of several recent studies (including one by a National Academy of Sciences panel) that a significant fuel economy increase could be achieved in the next ten to fifteen years with no change in the size of vehicles and with net savings to consumers, opponents of raising CAFE claimed that the higher standards would force everyone into golf cart-size vehicles. "The amount of misinformation crammed into the arguments against higher standards was staggering," said ACEEE Transportation Director Therese Langer. "Auto manufacturers have cried wolf time and again to stall important standards on vehicles' fuel economy, safety, and tailpipe emissions-how could the Senate have been hoodwinked this time around?"

The Levin-Bond Amendment sending the standards to NHTSA replaced an energy bill provision raising the standards to 35 miles per gallon, a 46% improvement over the current fuel economy of 24 miles per gallon for cars and light trucks combined. It directs NHTSA to set fuel economy standards for light trucks within fifteen months and for cars within two years. The Senate also voted yesterday to freeze the standard for pickup trucks, which account for 17% of new vehicle sales, at the current light truck standard of 20.7 miles per gallon. If an energy bill emerges from the Senate, it would be conferenced with last summer's House bill, which also excluded any meaningful increase to CAFE standards.