- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 23, 2009



It was, to use a current Washington cliche, a kumbya moment. Standing with President Obama in the White House Rose Garden for his announcement of new fuel-efficiency standards were auto-company executives, lawmakers and governors, regulators, industry defenders and critics and environmentalists.

Missing was anybody approximating the average car buyer.

The states, notably California, and environmental groups got the stricter standards they had been seeking. Automakers are free from the possibility of a patchwork of state standards and the lawsuits to fight them. The United Auto Workers got an implied federal commitment stick with the bailed-out companies.

And American car buyers will get $1,300 added to the cost of a car that they may not even want to buy. But, Mr. Obama promises, the higher mileage of the new cars will pay off that cost in three years and save $2,800 over the life of the car.

He promises much else as well: Ultimate savings of 1.8 billion barrels of oil, akin to what we import now from four of our major suppliers, and the equivalent of removing 177 million cars from the road over a 6 1/2-year period.

To accomplish this, all the automakers have to do is, by 2016, cut carbon-dioxide emissions by one-third and increase the average mileage of their passenger cars to 39 miles per gallon and their light trucks to 30 mpg, for a fleet average of 35.5 mpg.

Assuming automakers can reach that standard - and there were doubts they could achieve an even milder level set by the Bush administration - could they do it in an acceptable way? The quickest route to high mileage is smaller and lighter - and more dangerous - cars. Or they could import high-mileage cars from low-wage countries, which wouldn’t do much for the American autoworker.

Finally, would Americans even want to buy the cars? Absent high gas prices, Americans have a clear and long-standing preference for larger cars, sport utility vehicles and pickups. If they have to pay a premium for an Obamamobile, maybe they’ll decide to bite the bullet and shell out extra for the vehicle they really want.

The government may be left with unappetizing alternatives. One could be a tax to drive gas prices above $4 a gallon - and what lawmaker wants to go first on that one? Or they could try subsidies to induce people to buy the car, which would get the government more heavily invested in the domestic auto industry than it is already.

The fuel and emissions standards, as laudable as the intent may be, seem as much hope as policy, but then Mr. Obama did run on a platform of hope.

Dale McFeatters is columnist for Scripps Howard News Service.

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