Stiffing Fuel Economy
THE SENATE is considering a bill this week to allow drilling for oil and gas on more of the country's Outer Continental Shelf. The bill has problems, but the basic concept of increasing offshore production is sound. What is not sound, however, is the apparent refusal by the Senate leadership to allow consideration of an amendment to increase auto fuel economy standards. With energy prices high, the temptation to deal only with supply shortages is perhaps understandable. But it makes no sense to think about America's energy problem without serious attention to how to cut energy consumption.
The bipartisan proposal by Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) is not radical. Unlike some other ideas for jacking up average fuel economy, it would not set an arbitrary miles per gallon figure. Rather, it would change existing law to create a presumption of increasing fuel economy each year. Currently, no such presumption exists, so fuel economy standards tend to stagnate for long periods and then rise anemically. Under this proposal, if federal regulators do nothing, average fuel economy targets would rise 4 percent annually -- a rate studies have suggested is achievable. If federal regulators wish to stop or slow the rise, they would have to justify a finding that such an increase was not technologically achievable, inconsistent with a safe auto fleet or harmful to the economy. The proposal, in other words, would flip the consequences of regulatory inertia from stagnating miles per gallon to ever-increasing fuel efficiency.
Unfortunately, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is not allowing amendments -- so for now, the proposal seems to be going nowhere. The result is that once again, Congress may enact a major piece of energy legislation that does nothing to encourage responsible energy use. That's a foolish strategy.