- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 15, 2000

Given predictions that the per-gallon cost of regular unleaded gas will rise above $2 by the summer driving season, the odds that Washington politicians will demagogue the issue and craft dangerous solutions are increasing exponentially.

While it is doubtful Washington will revisit the price controls that created the gas lines of the 1970s, there is a better-than-average chance that lawmakers will enact equally foolish rigmarole such as an increase in the federal fuel efficiency law known as CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy). Set at 27.5 mpg for passenger cars and 20.5 mpg for light trucks the category that includes sport-utility vehicles and minivans CAFE has a tremendous (and negative) effect on the type and size vehicles built by the automakers. When CAFE first went into effect some two decades ago, the immediate effect was a "downsizing" of the average car and the virtual extinction of full-size family sedans and station wagons.

Two things happened as a result of this: One, fatality rates went up. Seat belts and air bags notwithstanding, a smaller, lighter car is always less safe than a larger, heavier car. Second, our domestic car industry was dealt a near deathblow by our own government as CAFE gave a tremendous and immediate competitive advantage to foreign, mostly Japanese, automakers who at that time specialized in compact economy cars, while Detroit's Big Three had very few such cars available. It took several years of reorganization and retooling before General Motors and Ford recovered and not before Chrysler went belly-up, and GM came within a razor's edge of the same fate.

All of this is important to remember because there is a great deal of back-room agitating underway at this very moment to ratchet up CAFE for light trucks to the level set for passenger cars or perhaps even higher. The rationale trotted out is "energy efficiency" an argument that will likely have greater resonance as gas prices increase. However, the effect of such a change would be devastating to our automobile industry and cost untold thousands of lives in the bargain.

If CAFE were pushed to 27.5 mpg or the 40-mpg advocated by some extremists just about every truck and SUV built by GM, Ford and DaimlerChrysler would be outlawed. In fact, the only domestic trucks that would make the cut are the 4-cylinder/manual transmission models of the compact Ford Ranger and Chevrolet S-10.

Pursuing an increase in light truck CAFE, therefore, would disproportionately hit our own domestic automobile industry with all that implies in lost jobs, higher costs and decreased productivity. But perhaps even worse, it would mean a higher death toll as consumers are once again compelled to purchase smaller, lighter and thus less safe vehicles. The plain fact is that proven reserves are sufficient to meet all current and projected needs for the foreseeable future; the only reason prices are high is that OPEC cut back production by some 4 million barrels per day.

The proper response, therefore, is not political quick fixes with potentially long-term damaging consequences but rather a sensible energy strategy that keeps OPEC at bay by taking advantage of the oil we've got under our control (in Alaska and off the West Coast), and letting market forces stabilize the cost of a barrel of oil. These efforts would prevent the adoption of a reckless "blood for oil" strategy such as raising federal CAFE standards.

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