Competitive Enterprise Institute | 1899 L ST NW Floor 12, Washington, DC 20036 | Phone: 202-331-1010 | Fax: 202-331-0640
As he prepares his 2004 Presidential bid, Senator John Kerry has been doing his best to strike a populist tone. Which makes us wonder about his latest legislation on fuel efficiency, which so far as we can see will be popular with no one outside the Wilderness Society.Mr. Kerry and Senator Fritz Hollings have put into the energy bill now being debated in the Senate some extraordinary new demands for fuel efficiency -- also known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. Under current standards, light trucks and SUVs must get 20.7 miles per gallon, while cars must average 27.5 mpg. The Kerry-Hollings proposal would raise the average to 35 mpg by 2013.Put another way, Mr. Kerry wants an SUV to become a whole lot more efficient than today's compact cars. Even if companies devise a rig that met the standards, it would have to be lighter and smaller than the smaller SUVs on the market today.We can't see Americans liking this now any more than they did the first time. CAFE standards were the environmental lobby's attempt in the 1970s to force "gas-guzzling" Americans to abandon cars that were comfortable and safe in favor of motorized tin cans. America responded by ignoring cars and buying SUVs.Today, more than one-half of all new sales in this country are light trucks and SUVs, and it isn't just because they're soccer-mom fashionable. According to a survey from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the two major reasons Americans cite for buying an SUV are extra room and safety. Electric/gas "hybrid" cars, those much ballyhooed paragons of fuel efficiency, have been a commercial flop.It's also strange that the Senator is so keen to alienate his union support along the way. Earlier this week, General Motors employees threw rallies at plants against the new standards, and no wonder. Trucks (which include SUVs) represent 75% of sales volume at DaimlerChrysler, 61% at Ford and 55% at General Motors. A new study by economist Andrew Kleit at Pennsylvania State University says a similar Kerry proposal would reduce annual profits at the Big Three by $9.2 billion. Foreign companies, which haven't really broken into light trucks, would profit.Mr. Kerry is doing his best to rally a patriotic America by saying his legislation will lead to "energy independence." But no amount of conservation and efficiency -- not 100-miles-per-gallon cars -- will make a significant dent in the share of U.S. oil (58%) that is imported. Alternative fuels, too, are pie-in-the-sky. Non-hydropower renewable sources account for 4% of U.S. energy consumption, and no amount of new windmills (a k a, bird threshers) or solar panels is going to nudge that much higher. If Mr. Kerry really cared about oil independence, he'd favor opening up the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge for drilling; instead he vows to lead a filibuster against it.If anything, Americans have become more hardened against fuel efficiency standards over time, having learned about certain harsh trade-offs. Last year the National Academy of Sciences settled a long-standing debate when it concluded that the smaller cars under CAFE standards contributed to as many as 3,200 traffic deaths annually; Mr. Kerry's proposal would raise those numbers even higher.The same CEI survey found that when Americans heard about CAFE's impact on traffic safety, a plurality opposed raising fuel efficiency standards any higher. Funny, we recall that when the Environmental Protection Agency said that stricter arsenic standards would save 28 lives a year, Washington's greens nearly went hoarse calling for action. CAFE would kill 114 times as many people each year.If Mr. Kerry is lucky, the Senate will kill his SUV assault before too many suburban voters find out about it.