Policy Peril Segment 7: Fuel economy standards

Today’s excerpt from CEI’s film, Policy Peril: Why Global Warming Policies Are More Dangerous Than Global Warming Itself, is on two global warming policies Congress has adopted: fuel economy standards and biofuel mandates.

Here are my previous posts in this series:

To watch today’s film excerpt, click here. To watch the entire film, click here.

The text of today’s film clip immediately follows. It includes footnotes to additional commentary and supporting information.

Narrator: If stopping new coal is the global warming movement’s top priority, a close second is jump-starting a ‘beyond petroleum’ transport system. They propose to do this by tightening new-car fuel economy standards. Why?

A car that gets more miles to the gallon emits less CO2 per mile [1]. But the federal fuel economy program, also known as CAFE, has serious downsides.

Sam Kazman (General Counsel, Competitive Enterprise Institute): Now there are lots of problems with fuel economy mandates. One thing, they raise new car prices. [2] Secondly, they restrict consumer choice. [3] But the worst thing is an effect you never hear their advocates talking about. Namely, fuel economy mandates kill people. [4]

Narrator: Here’s why. Heavier cars provide more mass to absorb collision forces, and bigger cars provide more space between the occupant and the point of impact. [5] Make a car smaller and lighter, and it will go farther on a gallon of gas.

Kazman: But you also make it less safe. According to the National Academy of Sciences, the current CAFE standard by downsizing cars, contributes to about 2,000 fatalities per year. [6]

Narrator: Legislation Congress passed in December 2007  requires a 40% increase in fuel economy by 2020. [7] In 2007, only two out 1,153 vehicle models met the new standards. [8] So expect more downsizing in the years ahead.

Another ‘beyond petroleum’ policy is to require the sale of alternative fuels. In December 2007 Congress also mandated that motor fuel producers sell 36 billion gallons of ethanol a year by 2022, with 15 billion gallons coming from corn kernals. [9] The result, we’re diverting massive quantities of grain from food to auto fuel. This contributes to the surge in global grain prices that is pushing millions of the world’s poorest people to the brink of starvation. [10]

But at least ethanol cuts down on CO2 emissions, right? Actually, no.

Dr. Dennis Avery (Hudson Institute): As we expand the cropland, then we get into the real trouble, because we release the greenhouse gas that’s stored in the soil as carbon. And with corn, we release twice as much gas as we would have released if we burned gasoline in the first place. [11]

[1] A gallon of gasoline (which weighs about 6.3 lbs.) produces 20 lbs. of CO2 when burned. If a car gets more miles to the gallon, it will emit fewer lbs. of CO2 per mile driven. The relationship between fuel economy (mpg) and lbs. CO2/mile is so strict that EPA bases its fuel economy ratings of vehicle models on tests that measure the carbon content of the emissions, principally CO2.

Unsurprisingly, virtually all CO2-reduction options for new motor vehicles are fuel-economy-increasing options. See p. 10 of the National Automobile Dealer Association’s comment on EPA’s reconsideration of California’s request for a waiver to establish greenhouse gas emission standards for new motor vehicles. 

[2] There are basically two ways to increase fuel economy–downsizing (making cars smaller and lighter) and new technology. Typically, advanced technology costs more than conventional technology. The Energy Information Administration, for example, estimates that California’s greenhouse gas/fuel economy standards, which President Obama recently adopted, will increase the average price of a new car by $1,860 in 2016. [Obama’s program will also impose heavy burdens on the nearly prostrate U.S. auto industry, as economist Keith Hennessey explains.]

[3] The CAFE program all but killed the market for large station wagons, because automakers could not produce millions of these once popular “family cars” and meet the CAFE standard for their vehicle fleets.

In addition, as a general matter, because fuel economy mandates increase vehicle cost, they inevitably price some consumers out of the market for certain vehicle models, restricting their choices.

Ironically, the federal fuel economy program boost the production and sale of gas-guzzling SUVs. Consumers who might otherwise have purchased big station wagons instead bought large SUVs. Congress regulated SUV fuel economy less stringently because (1) SUVs are built on a light-truck chassis and thus are classified as trucks rather than as passenger cars, and (2) most SUVs traditionally were used for farming and business rather than commuting. Fuel economy standards helped create the boom market for low-mpg SUVs–a classic case of the law of unintended consequences.

[4] Sam debates the issue of whether CAFE kills with an analyst from Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) here.

[5] I am always amazed when people with scientific credentials deny the safey implications of regulatory-induced vehicle downsizing. How can they claim that size and weight don’t matter? That’s denying the laws of physics. There’s a reason why boxing matches don’t pit lightweights against heavyweights, or why marathon runners don’t play professional football.

Yes, new technology can improve the crashworthiness of small cars. But, as Sam explains elsewhere, a large car with new technology will still be safer than a small car with new technology. To the extent that CAFE constrains the production and sale of larger, heavier vehicles, it limits auto safety.

[6] Sam refers to a National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council (NRC) study, Effectiveness and Impact of Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) Standards. See pp. 25-29, especially p. 27. The NRC estimates that in 1993, a typical year, downweighting and downsizing of cars contributed to 1,300 to 2,600 auto fatalities, 13,000 to 26,000 incapacitating injuries, and 97,000 to 195,000 total injuries.  

[7] The so-called Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA). Click here to read the Congressional Research Service’s summary of the EISA provisions.

[8] Prior to investigating, I had assumed there must be at least 30-50 models on the road that met the fuel economy standards mandated by the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act. But EPA’s fuel economy ratings for model year 2008 reveals that only two out of 1,153 models, the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic Hybrid, met or exceeded the standard (35 mpg for both city and highway driving conditions).

[9] Click here to read the Congressional Research Service’s summary of the EISA provisions.

[10] I provide references here on biofuel policy and world hunger. In May 2008, the International Food Policy Research Institute estimated that biofuel demand accounted for 30% of the increase in world cereal prices during 2007-2008. For further discussion, see Dennis Avery’s October 2008 paper for the Competitive Enterprise Institute. 

[11] Dennis’s CEI paper recaps the literature on CO2 increases from biofuel policy-induced land-use changes, including Searchinger et. al. (2008) and Fargione et al. (2008). Additional reviews of these studies are available on World Climate Report and CO2Science.Org.