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Fuel Economy Standards
The Mercury News, December 31, 2008

Opinion: Car makers should be forced to meet higher fuel standards
By Francisca Santana

My first memories of riding in a car were formed while buckled into the couch-size back seat of my mother's bright green 1973 Chevy Nova. This monster vehicle, a relic of the gas-guzzler heyday of the early 1970s, was powered by a V-8 that could lurch from 0 to 60 mph in the blink of an eye. More inconveniently, it earned a dismal fuel-economy rating of 15 miles a gallon.

My parents soon realized that the poor gas mileage was too steep a price to pay for the luxury of a powerful engine, and we downgraded to a smaller car. We learned a simple lesson about the benefits of lower gas consumption, a lesson now compounded by the urgency of the climate crisis and the need for energy security.

Two weeks ago, President George W. Bush announced a plan to provide $17.4 billion to bail out two of the floundering Big Three automakers: Chrysler and the once-proud maker of our Chevy Nova, General Motors. The bailout package may seem like a reluctant handout from the White House, but in reality, the current administration has been allied with these corporations for years, teaming up with them to fight fuel economy and emissions standards.

In fact, the White House is preparing to dole out a New Year's bonus to the Detroit automakers by releasing yet another round of inadequate corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards: 31.6 miles per gallon by 2015. These CAFE standards are pathetic, disregarding both current technology that can achieve 35 to 45 mpg and the needs of the environment and the American consumer.

Detroit automakers have spent millions of dollars opposing improvements in fuel economy and emissions standards through relentless lobbying and litigation. They've spent even more conjuring, through extensive advertising campaigns, a strong yet ultimately temporary demand for their inefficient vehicles instead of investing in hybrid and electric technology. The Big Three have not just erred in their business model by pursuing these odious strategies; they have firmly established their culpability for global warming. Calling it anything less than that is an insult to those who rely on these companies for their paychecks and retirement, and future generations who have a right to enjoy a stable climate.

Since Chrysler and GM have ignored the call for energy independence and better environmental standards, any bailout plan should include safeguards to protect taxpayers, consumers, and the environment.

First California must be allowed to immediately enact its emissions standards for motor vehicles. Second, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration must be directed to revise the upcoming CAFE standards to encourage innovative technologies that improve fuel economy. Finally, any bailout must require automakers receiving funds to drop any lawsuits attempting to block higher emissions standards and submit to Congress plans for accelerating production of fuel-efficient models.

These minimum conditions are critical, but now is also our moment to accomplish more. Instead of awarding billions to the uninspired automakers, the taxpayers should simply buy one of the failing Big Three. We can begin a new Apollo Project, not only for a fleet of low-carbon and clean vehicles, but also for the trains, buses and light-rail systems that must be the core of our future transportation system.

The Chevy Nova, a former product of GM's Chevrolet division, was built during the last gasps of an earlier era of oversize-auto production. Let us use this bailout as an opportunity to call for the end of another. In the 1980s, my parents sold their Chevy for a smaller, efficient Japanese car. But given the option, I know we would have traded it in for a leaner, cleaner GM model.

Francisca Santana of San Francisco is a climate associate with the Center for Biological Diversity"s Climate Law Institute. She wrote this article for the Mercury News.
Photo © Paul S. Hamilton