The Fuel Economy Shuffle

THE FUEL ECONOMY SHUFFLE….For reasons that escape me, Gregg Easterbrook has made it his life’s work to insist that George Bush is a beacon of environmentalism who just can’t catch a break from a liberal establishment that won’t give him credit for his good works. I first wrote about this three years ago, and concluded that his misrepresentations and special pleadings on this subject were so egregious that nothing further he said about it should be trusted without independent verification.

Today Easterbrook is at it again, claiming that Bush’s recent call for higher mileage standards has been unfairly ignored:

This should have been Page One headline material — PRESIDENT CALLS FOR DRAMATIC MPG REGULATIONS. Instead, most news organizations pretended Bush’s mpg proposal did not exist, or buried the story inside the paper, or made only cryptic references to it.

….Bush proposed that the CAFE standard grow 4 percent stricter per year….Improve on 21 mpg by 4 percent annually for 10 years, and the number rises to 31 mpg. If the actual fuel economy of new vehicles were 31 mpg, oil-consumption trends would reverse — from more oil use to less.

Easterbrook is right: if corporate average fuel economy rose 4% a year for ten years, that would be a huge improvement and Bush would deserve enormous credit for making it happen. But as always with Bush, the devil is in the details, something that “most news organizations” are well aware of. For your edification, here are the details:

  • Bush is insisting that Congress get out of the CAFE business. Instead, the Bush administration itself will set future standards “based on cost/benefit analysis, using sound science, and without impacting safety.” Pardon my cynicism, but this doesn’t sound like a way of increasing CAFE standards. It sounds like a way of preempting a newly Democratic Congress from setting strict standards and instead allowing the administration to create toothless, industry-friendly rules with lots of loopholes. “Cost/benefit” and “sound science” are movement conservative buzzwords that are usually pretty reliable indicators that the con is on.

  • Bush’s plan is to switch from average fuel economy standards to “attribute-based” standards. That is, instead of a firm overall target, car manufacturers will have flexible targets for different vehicle classes, along with the ability to trade “CAFE credits” if they don’t feel like meeting even those.

  • That 4% per year increase in fuel economy? It’s an “assumption,” not a commitment. “The Secretary of Transportation will determine the actual standard and fuel savings in a flexible rulemaking process.”

Look. We’ve been around the block on this kind of stuff before: great sounding promises from Bush followed by little in the way of serious rulemaking/funding/legislative action. I’m not sure why Easterbrook pretends not to know this, but the rest of us should keep our hands on our wallets until Bush unveils firm proposals that put some meat on these bones.

If Bush turns out to be sincere, then I’ll be suitably astonished and I promise to eat a healthy helping of crow. But I’m not holding my breath. Even granting John Dingell’s longtime aversion to increasing CAFE standards, I’m not willing to turn the CAFE keys over to Bush at just the time that we finally have a Democratic Congress that might turn out to show some spine on this issue. Because Easterbrook is absolutely right about one thing: “Nothing the United States can do in energy policy is more important than an mpg increase.”