How green is cash-for-clunkers program?

Fuel efficiency requirements for new cars bought under the rebate program aren't strict enough, say some.

Larry Downing/Reuters
Cash-for-Clunkers program used cars sit on Ted Britt Ford dealership storage lot in Fairfax, Virginia, on Monday.

The US government’s Cash for Clunkers program has been widely praised for acting as an instant stimulus for the automotive industry, but has it been equally successful in meeting its environmental goals?

The rebate program steamed through the $1 billion earmarked for it in the past week, putting an estimated 250,000 new cars on US roads. An additional $2 billion has been approved by the House for the program, which is aimed at boosting car sales as well as getting cleaner and more fuel-efficient cars on the road.

But as the Senate now debates the extra funding, some are asking whether the fuel efficiency requirements for the newly-bought cars are good enough to compensate for some of the environmental costs of scrapping the old ones.

As the program currently stands, it’s up to the consumer to determine how fuel efficient they’d like their new car to be. The new car must get a minimum of four more miles per gallon than their old vehicle to qualify for the $3,500 rebate, and 10 more miles per gallon to qualify for the $4,500 rebate, though allowances differ for trucks and SUVs.

For every customer that drives off with a shiny new car, a “clunker” must be permanently destroyed.

“[I]f consumers make the right decisions, [the program] could help reduce global warming and help reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and certainly save the individual consumers money at the pump,” says Ann Mesnikoff, director of the green transportation campaign at the Sierra Club. But, she adds, "the framework of the program itself could enable consumers to make some very bad decisions. You could turn in a gas-guzzling 14 mile per gallon vehicle and turn around and buy [a truck] that gets 15 or 16 miles per gallon.”

For this reason, the Senate needs more information on the type of cars purchased and surrendered through the program to help decide if and how the program should continue, say Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California and Susan Collins (R) of Maine.

“Congress needs this data in order to determine if the fleet modernization program delivered significant fuel economy gains and oil savings,” Senators Feinstein and Collins wrote in an open letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

The senators say they would like to see revisions to the program, including a two miles per gallon increase in the minimum fuel efficiency requirement. They also say the program should allow the purchase of fuel-efficient used vehicles.

Additionally, because clunkers have to be destroyed by injecting a lethal dose of sodium silicone into the engine, the cars can’t be resold and far fewer parts than usual can be recycled.

“There’s a lot of energy expended to make a new part,” says Michael E. Wilson, executive vice president of Automotive Recyclers Association, adding that recycling auto parts saves 85 million gallons of oil per year in energy savings alone.

The two parts most in demand on the resale market are the engine block and the drive train, accounting for 60 percent of used-part sales, says Mr. Wilson But when cars are scrapped, the engine block is destroyed by the silicon, and the drive train can be sold only under certain conditions. Wilson would like to see some of those restrictions change if the program is renewed.

For Sierra Club's Ms. Mesnikoff, the jury’s still out. “Before we put more money into it … we should know what we’ve spent our money on to date and know what people are turning in and what they’re buying.”


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