- The Washington Times - Monday, July 2, 2001

Bad times often beget bad ideas and the current energy crunch is no exception. Pressure is building in Washington to raise the federal government's fuel economy requirement for sport-utility vehicles and other so-called light trucks from the current 20.7 miles per gallon to perhaps as high as the 27.5 mpg level required for passenger cars. These requirements represent a fleet average. In other words, individual vehicles can get more or less than the 27.5 or 20.7 mpg set forth under the regulation. However, each automaker's combined fleet of vehicles within a given category (e.g. light trucks or passenger cars) must not exceed the standard. The penalty for failing to meet the overall fuel economy standard? Special taxes affixed to the bottom line that consumers must ultimately pay for.

These so-called gas guzzler taxes would rise significantly in the event federal fleet fuel economy requirements are raised from their current 20.7 mpg level, as is being proposed by various parties sadly, some of them in the Republican camp. In fact, raising light truck fleet fuel economy requirements to the same level as required of passenger cars could effectively outlaw all but the smallest pick-ups and SUVs made today. For example, of currently available pick-up trucks and SUVs, only compact models such as the Ford Ranger and Chevrolet S-10 equipped with the 4-cylinder engine and manual transmission could make the 27.5 mpg cut. Most pick-ups and SUVs are equipped with larger V-6 and V-8 engines that are necessary to pull the additional weight and provide the capability such as the ability to tow a trailer desired by the folks who buy these specialty-type vehicles. It's hard to see how making these kinds of vehicles, which now account for almost 50 percent of all vehicles sold, either more expensive to buy or more difficult to manufacture as a result of opprobrious taxation will help ease the economic crunch.

The automobile industry is one of the largest single engines of the U.S. economy, employing tens of thousands directly and indirectly affecting the livelihoods of millions. Any act of the federal government that hurts the auto industry is going to hurt consumers and, ultimately, the economy in general, too.

But won't raising federal fuel efficiency requirements save fuel? No. Federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) requirements have been in place since the late 1970s, yet fuel consumption has consistently gone up. Moreover, while there is not one shred of evidence that CAFE encourages fuel conservation, there is ample evidence that its punitive side-effects make it harder for people to get the types of vehicles they need. For example, CAFE requirements can be credited with killing off large, V-8 powered family sedans and station wagons with rear-wheel-drive. There are only a few of these types of cars left outside of the high-dollar luxury car market. So instead of having a station wagon or large sedan to cart the family around, American drivers have had to resort to SUVs or to multiple vehicles to handle the job formerly performed by just one larger, more capable vehicle. Result? No net decrease in fuel usage but more hassle and expense for consumers as a result of market-distorting ukase from know-nothings in Washington.

The Bush administration would be wise to resist the growing political pressure to "do something" as regards federal fuel economy standards. Carter-era energy policy didn't work back in 1977, and the passage of 20 years is not apt to make a dumb idea any smarter.

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