How To Lower Gas Prices, Part 2

In an earlier item, Chatterbox urged the federal government to lower gas prices and reduce pollution in one fell swoop by increasing Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards. Chatterbox wrote: “Bill Clinton proclaimed during the 1992 campaign that he wanted to raise CAFE to 40 or 45 miles per gallon–then, as now, it was 27.5 miles per gallon–but never pushed the issue when he had a Democratic Congress.” (Since the Republicans took over Congress in 1995, they’ve blocked any CAFE increase at all.) This, Chatterbox now realizes, is a few degrees too charitable to Clinton, who, after automakers squawked about his plan, emphasized that 40 or 45 m.p.g. had been merely a goal. It was not a goal. It was a promise, as Chatterbox can verify after digging out his dog-eared copy of Putting People First, the Clinton-Gore campaign manifesto published by Times Books in 1992. “Here’s what a Clinton-Gore Administration will do [italics Chatterbox’s]” is how the introduction to the book’s “Environment” chapter concludes. The rest of the chapter is a series of bulleted items that can only be characterized as campaign promises. One such bulleted item reads as follows: 

  • Accelerate our progress toward more fuel-efficient cars, and raise the Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards for automakers to 40 miles per gallon by the year 2000, and 45 miles per gallon by 2015. [Italics not Chatterbox’s.]

When Clinton published those words, the CAFE standard for cars was, and had been for many years, 27.5 miles per gallon. We are now six months into the year 2000 and it’s still 27.5 miles per gallon. And remember–that doesn’t include SUVs, which are still classified separately as light trucks (required only to get 20.7 miles per gallon)! A fast-talking Clinton might point out that raising CAFE only for cars would now be foolish, because it would narrow the price differential between cars and gas-guzzling SUVs, which today at least have the environmental benefit of being more expensive than cars. (If SUVs were cheaper relative to cars, more people would buy them.) But the point is that CAFE standards should be raised for both cars and SUVs, and that the CAFE differential between cars and SUVs should be narrowed and, ultimately, eliminated. No, wait, that isn’t the point. The point is that the Clinton administration should have started doing this back in 1993. Instead, Gore embraced the “Clean Car Initiative“–an ambitious research-and-development government partnership with Detroit that promised (in 1993) “a three-fold increase in fuel efficiency within ten years.” The project (since dubbed the “Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles“) has reportedly yielded some promising technology, but none of its prototypes has yet found its way into the market. It’s looking very doubtful that average auto fuel efficiency three years from today will be anywhere near the PNGV goal of 80 miles per gallon. We should count ourselves lucky if it isn’t still 27.5 miles per gallon. Wouldn’t PNGV have been getting quicker results had the automakers known that the Transportation department planned to ratchet up CAFE standards whether Detroit was ready or not?