Obama's Fuel Economy Follies

Politicians want you to pay more when you drive. They just won't admit it.


"We must ensure that the fuel-efficient cars of tomorrow are built right here in the United States of America," President Barack Obama declared yesterday. He also signed an order directing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to review the denial of California's request to set its automobile mileage standards higher than those adopted by the federal government.

In 2007, Congress passed and President George Bush signed legislation aimed at increasing Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards to at least 35 miles per gallon (mpg) by 2020, up from 27.5 today. Federal CAFE standards were originally set in 1975 during the first "energy crisis." If an automaker's average mileage fails to meet the CAFE standards, it must pay a fine which currently stands at $5.50 per 0.1 mpg, multiplied by the manufacturer's total domestic production. Some companies choose to simply pay the penalty. For example, BMW handed over $230 million in fines last year while Daimler, the maker of Mercedes-Benz automobiles, paid $55 million, and Volvo paid $56 million.

Now, California and 13 other states, representing about 50 percent of the U.S. automobile market, want to force carmakers to meet the 35.7 mpg standard by 2016, rising to 42.5 mpg in 2020. Proponents argue that the higher mileage standard is needed to both cut the emissions of greenhouse gases that are contributing to man-made global warming and to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

Do CAFE standards work? The CAFE standards established in 1975 during the first "oil crisis" explicitly aimed to reduce America's dependence on imported oil. In 1975, the U.S. imported about one-third of the petroleum it consumed. By 2008, imports accounted for about two-thirds of consumption. On the other hand, a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report in 2002 estimated that CAFE standards had reduced U.S. oil consumption by 14 percent below what it would otherwise have been.

In 2007, the Pew Campaign For Fuel Efficiency released a poll in which 89 percent of respondents said that it was important for Congress to pass higher automobile fuel efficiency standards. Whatever Americans might tell pollsters, they voted quite differently with their pocketbooks. For example, CAFE standards on passenger vehicles had a big unintended consequence—the rise of sport utility vehicles (SUVs). Mileage standards for light trucks were set lower at 20.7 mpg and SUVs and minivans qualified as light trucks. In 1975, only 20 percent of vehicles sold were light trucks, but by 2002, that had risen to more than 50 percent of vehicles. In 2002, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the EPA's 10 most fuel efficient models constituted less than 2 percent of auto sales. As recently as 2007, none of the top 10 vehicles chosen by consumers voting at the popular website CarGurus.com had an average gas mileage that met current federal CAFE standards

In his announcement yesterday, Obama estimated that the new federal mileage standard would save 2 million barrels of oil per day. Although estimates vary considerably, boosting fuel efficiency is not cost-free. California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols endorses a rosy scenario, claiming that the state's new standards will only add about $400 per car. On the other hand, General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz apocalyptically predicts that even the less stringent new federal CAFE standards will boost car prices by $4,000 to $10,000 per vehicle, averaging around $6,000. The Energy Information Administration's middle of the road calculation is that the new California regulations would add about $1,900 in costs to each vehicle. Essentially, CAFE standards function as a kind of inefficient stealth tax on driving. It's inefficient because drivers pay more, car companies make less money, and state and federal governments don't get any extra revenues.

But CAFE proponents argue that there is a bright side—the higher costs for the gas-sipping cars will be offset by lower gas bills. For example, a car driven 12,500 miles per year at 27.5 mpg would use 454 gallons of gas annually. Raising the mileage to 35 mpg reduces that figure to 357 gallons per year. So the new California standards would save drivers an average of 100 gallons per year. At $1.50 per gallon that comes to $150 per year; at $4 per gallon it comes to $400.

Politicians claim that manufacturing the new CAFE-compliant cars will increase jobs in the auto industry. But will it? All other things being equal, increasing the price of a product is not usually considered a sure fire recipe for attracting more customers. Higher prices mean lower demand, something that normally results in fewer jobs in the auto industry. On top of that is the fact that it takes fewer workers to manufacture the generally smaller cars that meet CAFE standards. It's hard to see how higher CAFE standards will produce more jobs.

If California's state legislators—and the other politicians who favor the new higher mileage standards—really want their citizens to drive more fuel efficient (and generally smaller) cars, there is a simpler and more honest policy: Hike gasoline taxes substantially. In 2002, the NAS's report correctly observed, "There is a marked inconsistency between pressing automotive manufacturers for improved fuel economy from new vehicles on the one hand and insisting on low real gasoline prices on the other. Higher real prices for gasoline—through increased gasoline taxes—would create both the demand for fuel efficient new vehicles and an incentive for owners of existing vehicles to drive them less." In other words, taxing gasoline would achieve the politicians' stated goals of reducing imports of foreign oil and cutting greenhouse gas emissions much more efficiently than convoluted CAFE standards—since taxes would apply to all vehicles, not just new ones.

The NAS further noted that more models of high mileage cars were produced abroad largely because gasoline in other countries costs $4 to $5 per gallon. Last year, we learned definitively that Americans respond with alacrity to higher fuel pump prices. As gasoline prices soared to over $4 per gallon, consumer demand for smaller cars rose by 37 percent over the previous year. At nearly 64 cents per gallon, California already imposes the highest gasoline tax in the country, yet Californians continue to insist on buying and driving cars of which their legislators disapprove. Ultimately, setting CAFE standards is just a way for cowardly politicians to avoid telling their fellow citizens that they should pay more for the privilege of driving.

Ronald Bailey is Reason magazine's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.