Clean Air, Not Dirty Politics

Increased fuel efficiency will protect the environment and reduce reliance on foreign oil

Last week, the Senate irresponsibly voted down an amendment to this year’s omnibus energy bill that would have increased automobile gas mileage standards for the first time since 1985. The amendment, sponsored by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Sen. John S. McCain (R-Ariz.), would have raised the corporate average fuel efficiency—the average fuel efficiency for all autos sold in America—up from the current levels of 27 miles per gallon (mpg) for cars and 20.7 mpg for “light trucks.” Unfortunately, the powerful automobile industry and workers’ unions convinced 62 senators to vote against the amendment, which would have increased our fuel efficiency standards for all vehicles to 36 miles per gallon over the next 13 years.

Higher mileage standards would have been good for America’s long-term energy plan for two reasons. First, the United States leads the world in the production of greenhouse gases, which directly cause global warming. Among these gases, carbon dioxide is the biggest problem, and automobiles are the biggest source of carbon dioxide in America. If the government were to mandate higher standards for gas mileage, less gasoline would be burned and therefore less greenhouse gases would be emitted.

Second, and perhaps more important to many conservatives who voted against the amendment, the United States currently imports about 2.5 billion barrels of oil per day from the Middle East. Many on Capitol Hill have been clamoring to “reduce America’s reliance on foreign oil.” Many Republicans with friends in the oil industry have suggested that the way to do this is to dig in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska—a plan that would take 10 years to produce any oil at all and which would produce a paltry amount compared to the amount America imports. The more sensible plan for reducing dependence on foreign oil is, of course, to reduce consumption. Supporters of the Kerry-McCain proposal say that if it were adopted, the U.S. could save 2.5 billion barrels per day—the same amount America imports from the Middle East.

Opponents of the amendment claimed that higher mileage standards mean smaller and more dangerous cars. Sadly, car manufacturers have said that higher efficiency requirements will create higher costs for consumers. This may be true in the short term, but over the life of a car, the extra production cost is well worth it when the huge savings in fuel costs is taken into account.

During the Senate debate on the bill, Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) trivialized the issues at stake by showing, according to The New York Times, “an enlarged photo of a tiny, purple, one-seat European car,” and said, “I don’t want Americans to have to drive this car.” His refusal to directly address the consequences of higher mileage standards was irresponsible and insincere, but we expect no better from Lott.

On the same day as the vote against increasing the mileage standards, the Senate voted to have the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study the matter and come up with a proposal for new standards within the next year. On top of that, the Senate voted by a smaller margin to exempt pickups from any new increases the study might recommend. It makes little sense to preemtively exempt pickup trucks from any new standards, and we worry that the loophole which classifies SUVs and minivans as “light trucks”—allowing them to be less efficient—is being expanded rather than closed.

This vote demonstrates once again why campaign finance reform, another McCain initiative, is so very necessary. The decision to vote down improved gas mileage standards shows just how heavily corporations and unions weigh on lawmakers’ minds.