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Taking the High Road ...

June 04, 2005

The Bush administration is finally preparing to set new fuel economy rules. That's reason to cheer, even if this hardly represents leadership.

Consumers already are avoiding gas-chugging SUVs and lining up for hybrids. The administration was quiet about fuel efficiency while gas prices were low and Detroit was making big profits on those SUVs; now that American carmakers have to retool for better mileage to meet market demand, Bush apparently feels safe to lead the "progressive" charge.

Bush will have trouble selling his larger energy policy, which is heavy on drilling and exploring in sensitive environmental areas, unless he adds at least a few nods to energy conservation. It's odd that conservatives shy away from conservation, a concept that is so essentially conservative -- tried and proved to reduce oil dependence.

Fuel standards for passenger cars haven't improved in 20 years. At least that has given researchers a long time to come up with new ideas. Existing technologies could add nearly 20 miles per gallon to the existing average, but they would cost a couple thousand dollars more per car.

Bush has talked tough about new standards before and let us down. Note his Clear Skies Initiative, which would do less to scrub the air of dangerous pollutants than existing Clean Air Act regulations. That gives cause to worry that his latest comments on fuel standards are misleading too.

Among the concerns, officials with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which gets to make the new rules, have talked about switching from the existing Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards to some other formula. Under the CAFE standards, the average economy of all the cars a company sells has to hit 27.5 mpg, or they must pay fines. One alternative under discussion would require manufacturers to increase their average gas mileage by a certain percentage from wherever it is now.

That's like telling people who already replaced their lawns with gravel to cut their water use by the same percentage as neighbors who have had the sprinklers dousing their Kentucky bluegrass every day: It's unfair to the people who worked hardest from the first to conserve. It would cost more for Japanese carmakers such as Honda and Toyota, which have taken an early lead in developing gas-stingy cars, to squeeze yet more gas mileage out of their cars than for Detroit.

Worst of any scenario would be allowing companies to trade fuel-efficiency credits in such ways that gas mileage for, say, passenger cars improves very slightly but improvements scheduled for trucks are slowed, while any meaningful improvements are put off for two decades. Don't laugh. That's similar to what Bush is trying to do with Clear Skies.

With even the barest of improvements, Bush could tout his administration as the first in two decades to toughen fuel standards for passenger cars. That would be accurate, but unhelpful. Consumers will buy gas-thrifty cars, not self-congratulatory rhetoric.

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