CAFE klatsch

President Bush is set to address the nation this afternoon on plans to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil, reports the Greenwire news service. Greenwire’s Alex Kaplun reports:

[I]t was unclear exactly what steps the administration would take on its own to push forward its proposal, but there are a number of changes the White House could make on efficiency standards and fuels policies without congressional approval, an industry source said

For example, the administration could move on its own to boost corporate average fuel efficiency (CAFE) levels, although Bush has said he would not take such a step without receiving congressional approval to alter the structure of the program.

Were that the case, it’s worth to keep in mind this weekend’s Wall Street Journal editorial on CAFE, which responds to Sen. Barack Obama’s call for tighter fuel economy standards, and cites CEI’s work in this area.

Since 1974, domestic fuel economy has risen by about 60%. The gains initially came through sharp reductions in the size and weight of cars…Since the 1990s, improvements have been driven by technological advances. But over the same period, oil imports have increased; Americans use more gasoline than ever and hence emit more as well.

That’s because the indirect tax of mileage standards is an exceptionally inefficient way to influence consumption. CAFE doesn’t affect how many vehicles are on the road (a figure that keeps going up). And by making cars and trucks more fuel-efficient, it may encourage people to drive more

Designing high mileage vehicles is relatively easy–they’re all over Europe–and such cars have been introduced to the American market in the past. Consumers have plenty of such options to choose from now. But aside from fads like the Prius, Americans have proved unwilling to buy them. The miles-per-gallon advances over the last 30 years have translated into bigger, more powerful cars with more features. These are the vehicles Americans actually want.

Not without reason, either: There is a tradeoff between safety and efficiency. The National Academy of Sciences concluded that CAFE standards contributed to as many as 3,200 additional fatalities each year, because downsized cars are less safe in accidents. Other studies from the Brookings Institution and the Competitive Enterprise Institute put that number significantly higher.

And closer to the Motor City, where CAFE is a major issue, the Ann Arbor News says “No, thanks” to Sen. Obama’s proposal, which he pitched as an effort to “save” the Big Three:

[W]e hope [Sen. Obama] understandsthere is something more powerful than federal mandates exerting pressure on the domestic auto industry to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles – the free market.

With gasoline selling for well over $3 a gallon, and some predicting it could soar as high as $4 a gallon by this summer, American motorists’ love affair with gas-guzzling behemoths and muscle cars is cooling off…

The domestic auto industry may have arrived late to the fuel-efficiency party, but it’s clear the industry has gotten the message.

And if they haven’t gotten the message? Then mandates aren’t about to make them. As Sam Kazman noted last week:

According to a new Consumer Reports study, government claims that efficiency standards would give us a better washing machine turned out to be false. If Energy Department mandates for new top-loading models are “sacrificing cleaning ability,” why should we believe government will do any better on something as complex as a car?

To untangle the complexity of the issue, check out the new Simpleton’s Guide to Fuel Standards.