Washington loves great drama over the irrelevant. Take the matter of the White House's efforts last week to delay the release of the Environmental Protection Agency's annual report on the average fuel economy of new cars and trucks sold in America.
As noted in the New York Times, the EPA was ready to publish the report -- and, indeed, was in the process of sending out press notices -- when it got word from the White House that it would be better to tell the public about it a week later.
It was an attempt at a face-saving postponement, which was foolish for several reasons I'll explain shortly.
From the White House's viewpoint, the EPA report was a bad-news document. The average fuel economy of cars and trucks sold in this country has gone down, not up. That is not what the White House wanted Congress to hear while lawmakers were about to cast a final vote on the Bush administration's energy bill, which contains provisions to increase production of alternative fuels but does nothing to improve the fuel efficiency of cars or trucks, or to encourage consumers to buy more-fuel-efficient vehicles.
That is crucial, because gasoline accounts for 43 percent of U.S. oil consumption and 20 percent of smog-causing carbon emissions in this country, according to a 2004 report by Resources for the Future, a Washington-based think tank specializing in economic and social issues. Cars and trucks of all sorts consume most of that gasoline.
So, naturally, the news of the White House's machinations yielded the usual condemnations from the Sierra Club and other environmental groups that have been pushing for tougher federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. And, of course, there were the usual denials and demurrals from the EPA, the predictable lofty statements about commitment to science in the public interest, and the continued proclamations from the White House that the Bush administration's energy bill will get America moving along the road to energy self-sufficiency, if given the chance.
Well, Congress approved the bill, which is bound to become law; but it likely will do very little, if anything, to curb the nation's thirst for oil. It is doomed to failure for the same reason that CAFE has not worked, cannot work and will not work -- not even if Congress shook its oil-slicked self awake and actually voted to increase the CAFE standard, which now rests at an average 27.5 miles per gallon for cars and 20.7 miles per gallon for light-duty trucks (sport-utility vehicles, minivans, crossover wagon/SUVs and pickups).
The truck standard will rise to 22.2 miles per gallon for model year 2007 vehicles sold in this country, but that does not mean much either.
The reason is that CAFE is sales-weighted; and in order to sell enough fuel-efficient vehicles to make a difference in energy conservation, there must be a large base of buyers.
But in their collective political cowardice, neither the occupants of the White House nor the members of Congress have ever put forth a credible effort to bring consumers into the mix, because that would mean asking consumers -- a k a voters -- to share a large part of the pain and responsibility of energy conservation. People who hurt don't always vote the right way.
That is why Congress gave us CAFE in the first place. It was a witch's brew, meant to placate the environmentalists, who have the attention of the media, but to leave undisturbed an electorate that seldom pays attention to anything. The idea was to paint the automobile industry as the Evil Satan, running about with its sharpened advertising fork forcing otherwise unwilling buyers to purchase gas-guzzlers they truly did not want.
Many in the media and the environmental establishment have been complicit in this nonsense, as evidenced by published statements last week that the latest EPA report proves, as the New York Times put it, that "loopholes in American fuel economy regulations have allowed automakers to produce cars and trucks that are significantly less fuel-efficient, on average, than they were in the late 1980s."
The truth is a lot uglier.
The truth is that actual fuel efficiency -- the amount of work done for energy expended -- has gone up. A 2006 model 5.7-liter, 340-horsepower, Hemi V-8 Dodge Charger R/T sedan may not be fuel-economical. But at 25 miles per gallon on the highway, it's a heck of a lot more efficient than its 1966-1969 V-8 predecessors, which barely got 14 miles per gallon on a good day.
But a V-8 uses more fuel than a V-6, or an inline four-cylinder engine; just as mid-size and bigger SUVs use more fuel than a Dodge Charger sedan. The problem is that, awash in a sea of still relatively cheap gasoline, the high-horsepower cars and trucks are the vehicles the public is demanding and buying.
That gives the lie to the notion of the "most fuel-efficient" car company, because the simple truth is that all major automobile manufacturers doing business in the United States are selling as many trucks, SUVs and high-performance sedans as they possibly can -- as long as the market will take them.
Like it or not, Toyota Motor Corp.'s gas/electric hybrid Prius sedan was developed and is being sustained in the marketplace with hundreds of millions of dollars from the sale of big rigs such as the Toyota Land Cruiser SUV. Honda Motor Co., the darling of the environmental movement, is not turning down a single dollar from sales of its Honda Pilot or Acura MDX sport-utility models, or from sales of its hot new Honda Ridgeline pickup truck.
The bottom line is that car companies will make what the market will take; and, at the moment, there is absolutely nothing -- zilch, nada -- in the White House's energy bill, or in CAFE, to stop consumers from taking more horsepower and driving more vehicle miles than they've ever driven before.
The only things that will change that behavior are the things that not the Bush administration nor Congress -- nor the automobile industry -- want to do: tax gasoline, tax engine displacement, tax vehicle size, make consumers pay the real price of what they are buying. Environmental groups consider it a political impossibility.
Can I get an "amen" on that? No?
Well, then, grab yourselves another cup of CAFE. Have a good time reading the EPA's latest annual report on average fuel economy. Have a good laugh over the White House's efforts to delay the report's release -- and the resulting sophomoric hoopla. It's all about nothing.