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Corporate Average Fuel Economy - CAFE Standards

By Jeanette Joy Fisher

It appears as if various segments of the federal government are at odds with each other concerning an increase in the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. Even while President Bush is asking congress for permission to raise the standards, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta is going around Capitol Hill warning about what he sees as the potential dangers inherent in raising the standards.

The CAFE standards were put into place in 1975 in response to the 1973 Arab oil embargo, requiring American automobiles to average 27.5 mpg. Since that time, American automakers have increased the fuel efficiency of their vehicles somewhat, but domestic cars and trucks still lag far behind their foreign competition. Also, a significant number of America's 200 million vehicles still aren't subject to the CAFE standards, since they're classified as light trucks, including such vehicles as SUVs, vans, and pickups.

In a recent letter to congress, Secretary Mineta suggested that raising the CAFE standards would increase the number of deaths due to traffic accidents, raise the cost of healthcare, and reduce American employment. President Bush prefers basing the CAFE standards on vehicle size, which would set varying standards for vehicles depending upon their dimensions.

Regardless of the political wrangling, it's been more than thirty years since the CAFE standards were implemented, and although fuel efficiency has improved, Americans are driving nearly 50 percent more, which means there's been little or no net savings of energy during that time. Massachusetts Representative Edward Markey (D) recently proposed raising the CAFE standards for both cars and light trucks to 33 mpg, which most analysts agree would be the minimum number it would take to help America begin to raise itself out of its current energy dilemma. Markey told his colleagues that the fuel efficiency of domestic vehicles actually peaked nearly twenty years ago (in 1987, at 26.2 mpg), and then began to decrease. The current level is less than 25 mpg.

The squabbling on Capitol Hill comes in the face of increased uncertainty about the world's oil supply, which in turn seems to be fueling a growing sense of urgency for the creation of a new generation of more fuel efficient vehicles. There's talk about offering federal loan guarantees and grants to domestic automakers and parts manufacturers to encourage development of automotive technology that would lead to more fuel efficient vehicles. Innovations might include the use of lighter weight materials, electric/gasoline hybrid technology, and alternative fuels. The legislation would also encourage a greater availability of alternative fuels at gas stations.

In an attempt to break the federal gridlock, ten states (Connecticut, New Mexico, Oregon, California, Vermont, Maine, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and New York) have sued the federal government to force higher efficiency standards for gas-guzzling SUVs and pickups. Leaders from 227 American cities have also banded together to sign the "U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement," committing their communities to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to seven percent below 1990 levels by the year 2012.

Copyright 2006 Jeanette J. Fisher

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