Auto Efficiency Revs Washington

Lawmakers are playing a numbers game of mileage standards, energy conservation, and jobs

QUESTION: If Congress adopts a law requiring cars to get 40 miles per gallon, how much gasoline would that save the United States every day in the year 2005?

Answer: (pick one)

A. 500,000 barrels.

B. 1 million barrels.

C. 2.5 million barrels.

Energy Secretary James Watkins insists the answer is (A), but conservationists argue it is at least (C), and maybe even more.

Admiral Watkins, who strongly opposes a new mileage law, sarcastically accuses conservationists of firing "hipshots" with "hyped" numbers that are "misleading" the public.

Conservationists, stung by Watkins's constant attacks, strike back. The admiral is "under pressure," they explain. He's been "put on a short leash by the White House," especially by "political types like [chief of staff] John Sununu and [budget director] Richard Darman."

The debate, which could effect every driver in America, may erupt again Wednesday at hearings before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. And Watkins could be on the defensive.

At the heart of the argument is S279, a bill drafted by Sen. Richard Bryan (D) of Nevada, and co-signed by 34 other senators. It would require manufacturers to increase auto efficiency 20 percent by 1995 and 40 percent by 2001. For most automakers, that would mean boosting average mileage to 40 m.p.g.

The Bryan bill would change current CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards, which require each individual automaker's fleet of cars to average 27.5 m.p.g. Under CAFE, automakers have raised the mileage of new cars from an average of 19.9 m.p.g. in 1978, when CAFE was first imposed, to an estimated 27.8 m.p.g. in 1990.

During the past two years, however, average fuel economy has worsened because automakers like Toyota (Lexus), Nissan (Infiniti), Honda (Acura), and Ford (Thunderbird) have emphasized performance and size over fuel economy.

WAR in the Persian Gulf now has prompted some members of Congress to look for additional ways to save petroleum, and tougher CAFE standards seem to be one option readily at hand.

To slow the rush toward passage, Watkins charges that groups like the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) are "misleading everyone," including Congress, by claiming that if the Senate bill passes, "we'll never have another future [energy] crisis."

The secretary's own credibility, however, now is coming under attack. Watkins consistently claims that his department's calculations on energy are not only superior to others, but are drawn from the best data base on energy ever assembled.

"The complexity and depth of the modeling systems and the quality of the data we have developed 201> is second to none," he says.

Ironically, outsiders who have access to DOE procedures disparage Watkins's savings estimate, saying it was virtually "pulled out of the air." Even inside the Bush administration, some officials say quietly they are uncomfortable with the 500,000 barrel figure that Watkins trumpets.

Steve Plotkin, who is studying mileage proposals for the Senate, says Watkins's Department of Energy is playing "the old game of all the assumptions are on your side." He says:

"It looks like the 500,000 barrel mark that DOE came up with results from a series of assumptions that all converge to give you the lowest possible answer." Mr. Plotkin is a senior associate at the Office of Technology Assessment.

Barry McNutt, a policy analyst at DOE, says some of the comparisons drawn in the public debate - 500,000 vs. 2.5 million - are not entirely comparable because, for example, the years may not be exactly the same.

But differences remain. Mr. McNutt says more than 50 percent of the variation between the numbers of DOE and conservationists involves the "baseline." In other words, if no bill were passed, would average mileage rise, fall, or stay the same?

Conservationists assume it would stay about where it was in 1988 - or 28.6 m.p.g. DOE projects that with new technology, it would rise naturally to 33 m.p.g. So new CAFE rules would not save much.

Who is right? At the moment, probably the conservationists. Automakers are installing new technology, but they are using its advantages to bring customers greater power, speed, and weight, while mileage shrinks.

John DeCicco, a research associate with ACEEE, also disputes another important part of DOE's analysis. Dr. DeCicco factored in recent high levels of immigration to conclude that the population is growing faster than DOE projects. And the faster the population grows, the higher demand rises for gasoline.

If population grows as fast as ACEEE projects, then more gas would be saved with higher mileage standards. Each side claims to be right, but DOE's McNutt concedes: "Who knows what the truth is?"

The shakiness of DOE's 500,000-barrel figure stands in sharp contrast to Watkins's ebullient claims about DOE's mathematical wizardry. "I can't stress how important it is for the first time to have the finest of modeling available," the admiral says. With DOE's models, "now we have the data base" to determine which options "are efficacious."

Critics on Capitol Hill, however, say it is politics as much as science that is shaping DOE's agenda. With the 1992 presidential election approaching, Watkins's own words indicate that the White House is worried that higher CAFE could cost US jobs:

"The president has said, 'I will not do anything to force our people out of jobs....' We better take it easy before we impose additional burdens on our society by gimmicks [like CAFE]."

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