Better Fuel Economy Standards Needed

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Hotline, Winter 2003

by Rachel Filippini, GASP Executive Assistant

For the majority of us, driving is probably the most polluting activity we do each day. For every gallon of gasoline consumed, approximately 24 lbs. of global warming pollutants are released into the air.1 Cars and light trucks alone emit 20% of the nation’s human-produced carbon dioxide, the chief heat-trapping gas blamed for global warming, and they consume approximately 8 million barrels of oil every day. Can anything be done to help remedy the situation?

In 1975, in response to the Arab oil embargo of 1973-74 and the subsequent tripling in price of crude oil, the Energy Policy and Conservation Act established Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for passenger cars, for model years 1978-80 and 1985 and thereafter. The CAFE standards called for essentially a doubling in new car fleet fuel economy, establishing a standard of 18 mpg in model year 1978 and rising to 27.5 mpg by 1985. They also established fuel economy standards for light duty trucks, beginning at 17.2 mpg in 1979 and currently 20.7 mpg. CAFE standards are applied on a fleet-wide basis for each manufacturer (i.e. the fuel economy ratings for a manufacturer’s entire line of passenger cars must average at least 27.5 mpg for the manufacturer to comply with the standard). Currently the passenger automobile standard is set at 27.5 mpg; it has not increased since the 1986 model year. Light trucks, a classification that also includes sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and minivans, have a mere 20.7 mpg standard.

Can raising CAFE standards really make that much of a difference? If the CAFE standards were raised to 36 mpg for both passenger cars and light trucks, as a nation we could save one million barrels of oil per day, as much as the United States now imports from Iraq and Kuwait combined. We could also cut 240 million tons of carbon dioxide pollution each year.2 A proposal to do this very thing, giving manufacturers until model year 2015, was made in February of 2002 by Senators John Kerry (D-MA) and John McCain (R-AZ). However, on March 13, 2002, the Senate voted (62-38) for an amendment instead offered by Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) and Christopher Bond (R-MO). Their competing amendment would eliminate existing fuel efficiency language from the Senate energy bills and transfer responsibility for raising CAFE standards to the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). According to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, this was a bad move, since in the last decade NHTSA increased fuel economy standards for light trucks by a meager 0.5 mpg and never acted to increase the standards for cars. With the CAFE standards effectively frozen, the actual fuel economy of our nation’s automotive fleet is falling now, as cars coming off the road are more efficient than the new models coming on. “Auto industry resistance and congressional inertia have resulted in a 21-year low in the fuel economy of new vehicles sold.”3

Opposition to Increasing the CAFE Standards
Many opponents of increasing the CAFE standards argue that the standards make cars less safe, because higher mileage vehicles are generally lighter than lower mileage vehicles, providing less protection to drivers and passengers in crashes. It is not that simple. According to testimony given to Congress by David Nemtzow, President of Alliance to Save Energy, weight reduction in more fuel efficient vehicles provided only 15 percent of the doubling of fuel economy that occurred between 1975-1986. The vast majority of the savings came from the incorporation of advanced transmissions, drag-reduction techniques, exhaust controls, lighter-weight materials of equal strength, and other technical measures that increased miles per gallon in ways that cannot be construed to affect safety.4 In July 2001, the National Research Council released a report stating that automakers could meet a 37 mpg fuel economy standard phased in over 10 to 15 years without compromising safety or industry profits.

As you’ve probably noticed, there has been a growing trend towards owning SUVs. The increasing market share of these vehicles, along with their lower average fuel economy, has contributed to the lowering of the overall average fuel economy since the mid-1980s.5 In 1985, SUVs accounted for only 2% of new vehicle sales. SUVs now account for 25% of new vehicles sold, and sales continue to climb.6 Unfortunately, this new trendy automobile may be detrimental to the environment. These off-road vehicles that rarely leave the pavement are characterized as light trucks under the law; therefore, the CAFE standard is 20.7 mpg. This is an average for all light trucks, which is why it is possible to have SUVs on the road that only achieve 12 mpg. Some SUVs are so behemoth that they can no longer be classified as light trucks and are not subject to any kind of fuel economy standards. The average truck on the road emits 47% more smog-forming exhaust and 43% more global warming pollution than the average car.7 However, even light trucks and SUVs can take advantage of technologies to assist them in being more fuel-efficient. For instance, a combination of streamlining, reduced tire rolling resistance, engine improvements and optimized transmission could all help increase fuel economy.

Millions of inefficient light trucks (including SUVs) are used as passenger vehicles, yet they are NOT subject to the Gas Guzzler Tax (ranging from $1000 to $7700) that is imposed on inefficient cars. The Energy Tax Act of 1978 established the Gas Guzzler Tax on the sale of new model year vehicles whose fuel economy fails to meet certain statutory levels. The Gas Guzzler Tax applies to cars, not trucks, and is collected by the IRS. According to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, applying the GAS Guzzler Tax to all gas-guzzling passenger vehicles, including trucks and SUVs, would “pull up” the bottom end of the vehicle fleet and generate tax revenue that could be used to reimburse the government for any incentives they may offer to buyers of high-efficiency vehicles.8 The original CAFE law provided a different standard for light trucks because they were relatively few in number and traveled fewer miles than passenger cars, due to the assumptions that they were generally engaged in commercial activities that set them apart from personal-use vehicles. However, the use of many light trucks has changed. EPA has found that light trucks are largely used as passenger vehicles and log similar distances. Shouldn’t the CAFE standards reflect this fact?

Recently a bi-partisan bill, introduced by Senators Joe Lieberman (D-CT) and John McCain (R-AZ), is attempting to curb global warming by establishing a market-based trading system in greenhouse gas emissions. The McCain/Lieberman bill would set a nationwide cap limiting pollution from major sources in the industrial, commercial, electricity, and transportation fuel sectors, which together are responsible for nearly 80% of U.S. emissions.9 This legislation followed news that 2002 was the second warmest summer on record. The ten warmest years have all occurred since 1987, with nine of them happening since 1990. According to the legislation, automakers could earn credits that they could sell to other companies if they exceeded the CAFE standards by more than 20%. Companies would have the choice of reducing their emissions to reduce their required allowances or purchasing other companies’ allowances to cover their continued emissions. Any companies that voluntarily undertook efforts to reduce their greenhouse gases would receive credit for those actions.10

It is evident that leaving this matter in the hands of President Bush would not be wise. Recently the administration leaked an agency proposal that, on the surface, calls for a very small increase in the fuel economy of SUVs and other light trucks. However, on closer analysis, with the many loopholes that the auto industry enjoys, the oil savings would be negligible. In fact, what the administration is proposing is actually less aggressive than what the automakers have said they would voluntarily do by 2005.11

What Can You Do?
The choice of the vehicle that you drive has a major impact on the environment. Not only do you have to consider the fuel economy of the vehicle you drive, but also the tailpipe emissions. Choosing a low-emission, fuel-efficient vehicle can reduce the environmental impact of driving. There are many practical driving tips that can reduce your contribution to air pollution:

  • First and foremost, limit driving: use public transportation, carpool, bike, walk, combine errands, etc.
  • Avoid high speeds; high speed driving increases fuel use and emissions.
  • Keep your vehicle well-tuned.
  • Drive an alternative vehicle or alternatively fueled vehicle.
  • Make sure tires are properly inflated; keeping your tires properly inflated saves fuel by reducing the amount of drag your engine must overcome.
  • Do not overfill or top off your gasoline tank.
  • Do not refuel on high ozone days; try to refuel after dark.
  • Drive smoothly and avoid lengthy idling. Letting your engine idle for more than a minute burns more fuel than turning off the engine and restarting it.
  • Promptly repair any leaks in your vehicle’s air conditioning system.
  • When possible, park in the shade to minimize fuel evaporation and keep your car cooler in the summer.

When shopping for a new automobile, look for the one that is least polluting and most fuel-efficient that will meet your needs. Recognize that not all fuel-efficient vehicles are better for the environment; for instance, some powered by diesel fuel can have high efficiency but dirty emissions. Increasing the number of diesel vehicles on the road offers only modest potential reductions in global-warming pollution, but it poses a significant risk to air quality. For more information about 2003 fuel-efficient vehicles, go to the U.S. Department of Energy/EPA site: There you will find a variety of information on 2003 vehicles, such as 2003 fuel economy, pollution score, tax incentives for hybrid and alternative fuel vehicles, side by side comparisons and much more.

1. From the report Drilling in Detroit, Union of Concerned Scientists and Center for Auto Safety
2. EV World: Senators Reach Agreement on Improved Fuel Efficiency Standards,
3. Union of Concerned Scientists press release, 11/20/02 – “Administration Spins Feeble SUV Fuel Economy Proposal”
4. Testimony of David Nemtzow (Pres. Of Alliance to Save Energy) before the Subcommittee on Transportation and Related Agencies, House Committee on Appropriations, regarding the fiscal year 2000 Transportation Appropriations Bill and Restrictions on the authority of the Dept. of Tranportation to anaylze and recommend changes to CAFE standards.
5. Almanac of Policy Issues, 6.
10. Environment News Service,
11. Union of Concerned Scientists press release, 11/20/02 – “Administration Spins Feeble SUV Fuel Economy Proposal”