Backsliding on auto mileage

THE US Department of Transportation is making a mistake by reducing the congressionally mandated fuel economy target for 1989. In 1975, lawmakers passed the Energy Policy and Conservation Act. It required US automakers to build more fuel-efficient cars. It set a series of fuel-economy targets, culminating in a fleet average of 27.5 miles a gallon for 1985 and beyond. It provided for fines of up to $5 a car for every tenth-of-a-mile per gallon an automaker's fleet average fell below the standard.

For the fourth year running, the department has backed off the 27.5 m.p.g. standard, easing back to 26.5. That figure still bests the 1986, '87, and '88 standards of 26. But 1989's marginally higher target doesn't make up for the '86 through '87 retreats from Congress's 27.5 m.p.g. standard.

Was Congress's goal unrealistic? No. Chrysler expects its 1989 fleet to exceed the 27.5 m.p.g. standard. GM and Ford pushed for the change because there's still a buck to be made selling bigger, more powerful, gas-guzzling cars. Meeting the expected demand for those cars would push down their fleet fuel economy, pushing up potential fines.

The makers also argue that meeting Congress's standards would benefit Japan. Toyota and Nissan have built very fuel-efficient cars for years; under the law, they could get credit for besting past US mileage standards in calculating their new fleets' fuel economy. This puts them in a good position to sell bigger cars at a time when US automakers would be penalized for making them.

Where were GM, Ford, and Chrysler when Toyota and Nissan were exporting all those time-tested, well-built, fuel-efficient cars to the United States and earning those credits? Struggling to catch up. The way to level the playing field is to amend the 1975 law's provisions to disallow credit for past accomplishments (GM used them to meet the 27.5 m.p.g. target in 1985).

GM says the tougher standards would force it to lay off up to 4,000 workers in Texas. Texas is a key state in the presidential campaign, one that George Bush would clearly like in his pocket. Four thousand workers laid off at the hands of a Reagan-Bush DOT wouldn't look good.

The thin, almost whiny rationale comes at a time when public opinion clearly favors tougher fuel-economy standards.

Automakers and the administration say that substantially lower gasoline prices of the late 1980s make the 1975 conservation act obsolete. But in the 1980s, the act is even more relevant. Fuel efficiency is not only wise economic policy, it is sound environmental policy. Fossil fuels, such as gasoline, give off gases that contribute to the greenhouse effect as they are burned. The need to deal with this global environmental challenge will require even tougher mileage standards to reduce gasoline consumption.

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