US fuel economy study sidesteps auto mileage recommendations

The US National Academy of Sciences Monday said the fuel efficiency program for passenger vehicles must be updated to reflect improved auto technology and to reduce US reliance on foreign oil. But the report did not offer specific fuel economy recommendations.


By the OGJ Online Staff

WASHINGTON, DC, July 31 -- The US National Academy of Sciences Monday said the fuel efficiency program for passenger vehicles must be updated to reflect improved auto technology and to reduce reliance on foreign oil. But the report did not offer specific fuel economy recommendations.

"There are pros and cons to tightening fuel economy standards, involving a range of trade-offs," said Paul Portney, chair of the committee that wrote the report and president of Resources for the Future, Washington, DC. "Making these trade-offs is a task that rightfully resides with elected officials. However, no matter what Congress decides regarding specific fuel economy targets, our committee is adamant that changes should be made to shore up deficiencies in the program."

The 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act established the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards program largely to reduce foreign oil imports. Currently, automakers must achieve an average of 27.5 mpg for their fleet of new passenger cars, and 20.7 mpg for their fleet of new light-duty trucks. Light-duty trucks initially represented pickups and cargo vans, but now include minivans and sport utility vehicles (SUVs).

The report comes at a critical time for energy policy makers. The White House indicated it would take a hard look at boosting CAFE standards based on the outcome of the study. With the nation's overall fuel economy slipping for more than a decade, Congress asked NAS to study the effects that CAFE standards have had over the past 25 years, as well as effects that potential changes to the program might have.

The committee recommended a slate of improvements, ranging from the adoption of tradable fuel economy credits to the elimination of the "two-fleet" rule that sets different standards for domestic fleets and imports.

An earlier NAS draft spelled out more specifics. It said that "the fuel economy of new vehicles, especially sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks, could be raised by as much as 8-11 mpg over the next 6-10 years, with the extra cost offset by the savings on gasoline over the typical 14-year life of the vehicle."

The study released Monday did not include that recommendation, although it repeatedly stressed that the standard needs updating. The authors indicated that automakers have the technology to boost fuel efficiency by 16-47% over the next 15 years. The additional cost of those efficiency improvements could be offset by less fuel use over the lifespan of the vehicle, NAS said.

NAS also suggested that it is "inconsistent" for policy makers to demand that automakers sell more fuel-efficient cars and insist on low real gasoline prices. Higher gasoline prices, through increased taxes, would encourage the public to buy more fuel-efficient vehicles and drive them less, NAS said.

Despite its flaws, the CAFE program still has significantly reduced US gasoline consumption, NAS said. It estimated that gasoline consumption is down roughly 2.8 million b/d from where it would be in the absence of CAFE standards. Automakers argue that CAFE standards do not directly influence fuel consumption.

Although NAS did not advocate a specific CAFE standard, the Bush administration is under political pressure to consider an increase. Current law prohibits the Department of Transportation from even studying the issue until October. But Transportation Sec. Norman Mineta is expected to seek the White House's help in asking Congress to lift the study ban.

Environmental groups and their bipartisan supporters on Capitol Hill are also turning up the heat, calling on policy makers to increase fuel standards for SUVs, minivans, and light trucks to 27.5 mpg from 20.7. Automakers maintain that boosting fuel economy means too many safety tradeoffs in the design of new vehicles. Environmental groups reject that claim, saying technology exists now to raise the standard with few trade-offs.

A pending proposal in the House of Representatives endorsed by the White House would require SUVs to reduce fuel use by 5 billion gal over a 6-year period, effectively a 1 mpg increase in the standard. But environmental groups say that's not enough. The standard will be debated this week when the House considers energy legislation.

In the Democratic-led Senate, CAFE increases are supported by most of the leadership, and the issue will likely be addressed there in September.

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