Congress, Auto Industry, Big Ag, You and Me: Can Real and Substantial Progress in Auto Fuel Efficiency Be Made?

Woman fills cheerfully fills her tank - but for how long?
Woman fills cheerfully fills her tank - but for how long?

The Senate passed an energy bill last week that raises the CAFE standards (corporate average fuel economy) for passengers cars to an average 35 miles per gallon – and they’d better get cracking because they only have until 2022 to comply.

In that amount of time this nation has gone from hardly able to get a rocket off the launching pad without blowing up, to landing a man on the moon (six times), to the moon landings as a thing of the past. Now we have auto-makers balking at the oppressive legislation to make cars they know how to make already – if they really tried.

But we had real incentive back then; that being, essentially, to beat the Ruskies (the Soviet Union for you pre-cold war readers). Now it seems, when I’m feeling particularly frustrated and pessimistic, the only thing we need to beat is our own short-sighted stupidity.

Even with this relatively modest increase in fuel efficiency, auto-makers claim that such a requirement would force plant closings and limit consumer choice.

Limit consumer choice? Well, fellow consumers, we have choices to make, to be sure. And, I dare say, whether to acquire the latest model of SUV is, in the long run, not primary among them. Or maybe it is. If it really means that much to someone that they have more choices in cars than they ever really need, then far be it for me to stop them. Somehow the individual consumer will need to break free of the memorizing marketing blitz aimed at each one of us. Transportation is a basic need. It will not make the gorgeous brunette or hunky stud any more attracted to us (and if it does, well…) nor does the 4th of July really have anything to do with buying a car (studying a little bit of American History just might). We all know this, of course, but it is so hard to ignore the flashing lights, sexy bodies, and loud music. We… must… buy…

If the fifteen years this bill gives the auto industry to raise fuel efficiency to 35mpg is such a challenge, then perhaps now is a good time to start ramping up research and development. Employ an army of engineers, technicians, and designers instead of an army of lobbyists and lawyers. The auto industry is hardly a leading indicator in the social issues that effect the market for their own product. If they could embrace the inevitable changes that we face, then who knows what sort of Apollo-like drive, innovation, and opportunities they could create?  Instead we get a litany of claims why even modest increases in fuel efficiency isn’t doable, and all this when one can go out today and buy a cute, sporty Mini that gets 40 miles per gallon (not to mention the increasing popularity of hybrids).

A key solution to so many of our present ills – from global warming and pollution to our enormous dependence on foreign oil and the insane geo-political consequences that derive from it – is one of the most simple ones: raising fuel efficiency in cars and trucks. It seems to me that it’s the truly American thing to do.

And yet it is rendered almost uncomprehendingly complex as the Senate pats itself on the back for passage of the energy bill last week and the House takes up the issue this week. Much of all this legislation depends on the amount of “renewable energy” that is used to help meet these fuel economy standards. By renewable, what we generally mean in this case is ethanol. The principal source of ethanol in the United States is corn. Corn ethanol takes more energy to produce than it provides, creates serious land use and pollution issues, takes food stocks out of production, and has a host of other problems. There are other sources of biofuels and ethanol that actually produce more energy than is required in its production, but well, we have Big Ag lobbying mid-western congressman to push corn-based ethanol, with the attendant media campaign showing smiling people running around passing out yellow tee-shirts: “yellow is the new green”. Is it really?

It seems to me that doing what is right, in terms of the sustainability and survivability of the nation, civilization – the planet – will, in the long run, be good for business; it is what right government is charged with insuring; and it is what will ultimately make us all happy and fulfilled.

Yes, this rant is really nothing more than naive wishful thinking; wishing for a better world. But despite what we are led to believe by all the flashing lights, sexy bodies, and loud music, the road from here to there is not in an SUV, luxury sedan, or sleek sports coupe. They’re pretty, to be sure. But when we are left explaining the choices we’ve made to our grandchildren, what is it that really matters?

We’d better figure out what really matters before it’s too late.


Sources and Further Reading:
Mother Jones
The July/August issue of Ode Magazine
The Select Committee on Global Warming and Energy Independence
My Own Conscience (no link available)

Tags: cafe+standards, consumerism, fuel+efficiency, congress, sustainable+economy, gas+mileage, energy+bill, global+warming, environmental+essay
Thomas Schueneman
Thomas Schueneman
Tom is the founder and managing editor of and the PlanetWatch Group. His work appears in Triple Pundit, Slate, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, Earth911, and several other sustainability-focused publications. Tom is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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