Shootout at the Low-CARB CAFE
What's worse than farce? Political correctness. When farce ends, people look around and say, "Wow! That was stupid." With political correctness, the stupidity never ends. It moves from stupid to bizarre to delusional to dangerous to destructive. Yesterday, the Attorneys General of California, New York, New Jersey, Maine, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont filed a joint suit against the federal government, trying to increase CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) light truck standards. By doing so, they placed the entire fuel economy debate on the far side of the PC arc. First the science…
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) sets, monitors and enforces CAFE legislation. The agency does NOT, however, calculate the fuel economy figures. That job falls to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA makes its determinations by measuring the amount of carbon dioxide coming out of a vehicle's tailpipe. (The higher a vehicle's fuel economy, the less CO2 it expels.) The federal government does not classify carbon dioxide a pollutant. Environmentalists do. They consider CO2 a planet-warming "greenhouse gas." Now, the politics…
The environmental lobby would like the federal government to raise CAFE standards as high as humanly possible (if not higher), forcing manufacturers to increase fuel efficiency. For practical and political reasons, that ain't gonna happen. To win the war without fighting a losing battle on Capitol Hill (again, still), the aforementioned "Greenhouse Gang" decided to attack the new CAFE standards on the basis of CO2 emissions, rather than the fuel economy numbers themselves. Yes it's a distinction without a difference, but hey, you gotta work with what you got.
Only the environmentalists ain't got nothing. CAFE regulations prohibit states from regulating fuel economy. Despite the fact that the California Air Resource Board (CARB) sets tailpipe pollution standards for California, and thus the entire country, the Greenhouse Gang seeks dominion over federal CAFE standards as well. The lawsuit alleges that NHTSA failed to "fully take into account the new standards' impact on the environment and fuel conservation, as required by federal law." In other words, forget the failed Kyoto accord (aimed at reducing CO2 emissions), let's duke it out here.
The rhetorical battle has been joined. Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal loosed the most succinct opening salvo. "These rules shamelessly seek to short-circuit regulations in Connecticut and other states to curb greenhouse gas pollution. In the face of increasingly incontrovertible evidence, the Bush administration is not only denying the reality of global warming, but also seeking to block the states from addressing this deadly problem." So the feds are trying to short circuit the states, not the other way 'round. That makes sense– in a diminishingly inconvertible sort of way.
The truth is raising CAFE standards by a few more mpg's won't make any appreciable dent in domestic oil consumption. As Mr. Elton has revealed here, many car companies simply eat the CAFE fines as the cost of doing business. The fact that a 2002 National Academy of Sciences' report concluded that CAFE-triggered downsizing caused an additional 2000 road deaths per year is, I suppose, beside the point. Anyway, what IS the point? Unless US energy consumption is drastically reduced across the board– heating, cooling, appliances, manufacturing, agriculture, etc.– our growing economy will obviate any theoretical "savings" made by more efficient automobiles.
As for the harmful effects of CO2 gasses on our environment, I'll leave that to more (less?) scientific minds. Suffice it to say that the amount of "real" pollution coming out your tailpipe has nothing to do with fuel efficiency, and while new technology might reconcile America's quest for energy independence with environmental concerns, then again, it might not. While we're waiting for THAT debate, I reckon we should file this whole CAFÉ mishegos under "Bad Landing, Wrong Airport."
America is a country rich in resources, both financial and natural. The Bureau of Land Management estimates that three trillion gallons of oil and 362 trillion feet of natural gas lie just offshore, maybe more. We also have enormous coal shale fields, and coal fields, and nuclear power plant technology, and endless alt energy ingenuity. While we should be launching a massive and comprehensive push for energy self-sufficiency, a bunch of point-scoring politicians are pandering to tree-huggers getting high on self-righteous Bush bashing down at the low-CARB CAFE.
Of course, extracting our oil, coal and gas, or building nuclear power plants, or erecting enormous wind farms, could damage the environment. And a Manhattan-style energy self-sufficiency project would require bi-partisan political support (God forbid). I guess it's better to pay money to countries fostering terrorism and/or put our military in harm's way in the Middle East. Oh wait, that's not it either. Right, the politically correct answer is… driving cars with better fuel economy. You see, if that was farce, it would be funny.
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