Is CAFE Dead?

And if it is, is it a step forward? Grist’s Muckraker Amanda Griscom Little takes a look at the debate over fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks in Washington, and takes note of some efforts by legislators to bring fresh thinking to the table. The environmental community (at least in its institutional form) seems to have accepted the idea that arguing for higher CAFE standards is a non-starter:

“CAFE is and will remain an important policy instrument, but politically speaking, it’s dead,” said Ashok Gupta, senior energy economist for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Kevin Curtis, a vice president at National Environmental Trust, put it this way: “There are those who argue that CAFE has been dead for years, or even decades, given that no substantial improvements in the standards have been made since the ’70s. The difference now, for better or worse, is that most fuel-economy advocates are no longer even trying to make it seem alive.”

A Senate vote in June illustrated this point: When Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) offered an amendment to the energy bill that would have gradually increased CAFE standards to 40 mpg by the model year 2017, 67 senators opposed it. “Nay” voters included the Senate’s two most prominent Democrats, Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) and John Kerry (Mass.), both of whom had presumably done some electoral math and decided they didn’t want to piss off Michigan.

“Essentially, CAFE has become a whipping horse — an obstacle that all parties are stuck on, an ideological debate more than a practical, constructive one,” said Kit Kennedy, a senior attorney at NRDC.

I will say that I like the premise behind Joe Lieberman and Evan Bayh’s Vehicle and Fuel Choices for American Security Act for the same reasons that the auto industry seems to be warming to it: it’s less prescriptive than typical CAFE standards, which, ideally (and I stress ‘ideally’), would harness the creativity and flexibility of the private sector in meeting defined goals of lower oil consumption. Sen. Barack Obama has also proposed a trade-off to the auto industry with “…a recently introduced bill that would relieve U.S. automakers of some of their huge legacy health-care costs if the companies would funnel at least half of resulting savings into the production of more fuel-efficient cars.” Are these feasible options? We simply have to talk about fuel efficiency if we really want to reduce dependence on oil, as most of it goes into our cars and trucks. I suspect the Sierra Club‘s Dan Becker is correct when he notes “It is a good development that members of Congress are searching for new ways to save oil… but I suspect that ultimately they will find that CAFE is the best way.”

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