Annual CAFE fight underway

Published July 1, 2001

In 2000, as part of its decision to freeze CAFE standards for another year, Congress directed the National Academy of Sciences to prepare a new report on fuel economy, due by July 2001. But some CAFE proponents are eager to impose new restrictions on consumers, without even waiting to see the NAS findings.

On May 1, 2001, Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-California), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Chuck Schumer (D-New York), and Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island) introduced legislation to hike light-truck CAFE requirements to the same level as passenger cars, from the current level of 20.7 mpg to 27.5 mpg over five years.

The legislation would also extend passenger car CAFE requirements to the largest, heaviest pickups and vans that are used almost entirely for commercial purposes. Including these vehicles in the calculation of fleet CAFEs would automatically reduce the CAFE averages of car and truck manufacturers, requiring offsetting improvements in fuel economy.

S. 804 has been referred to the Senate Commerce Committee.

Not a new fight

Every year since 1995, Congress has directed the U.S. Department of Transportation not to increase CAFE standards. The latest extension expires in September 2001, and applies to cars and trucks through model year 2003.

Each year, anti-car activist groups do battle with industry and some consumer groups to hike CAFE standards, despite mounting evidence that the rules do not save energy and compromise passenger safety. (See “Safety, Jobs at Stake in CAFE Debate,” by James D. Johnston, on page 3 of this issue.)

Opposition to new rules

According to the Coalition for Vehicle Choice, a grassroots coalition representing more than 40,000 organizations and individuals devoted to preserving safe and affordable vehicle transportation, “If enacted, the bill would mean drastic restrictions in the choices of light trucks available to consumers. That’s a direct threat to millions of farmers, ranchers, construction firms, landscapers, van and shuttle operators, and haulers of heavy equipment.

“It would force consumers to hold on to current vehicles longer than they had planned—which would keep older, less-efficient vehicles on the road (the exact opposite of the supposed goal of the CAFE program).”

The CVC calls CAFE “hopelessly flawed,” and says “other approaches should be pursued to promote energy goals.”

“CAFE is a bad idea and requiring SUVs to meet the same standard as cars is an even worse idea,” says Sam Kazman, counsel for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington DC-based think tank and an expert on fuel economy standards. “CAFE has been proven to kill people by forcing the downsizing of automobiles. The very popularity of SUVs is based in part on the fact that they have the capacity and size that people have not found in cars because of CAFE.”

Pete du Pont, chairman of the National Center for Policy Analysis, summarized the views of many of CAFE’s critics during last year’s debate over the rules. “CAFE is a relic of the ’70s that should be forgotten, not strengthened. We don’t need the regulations, and we don’t need the grief. CAFE is unwise at any speed.”