No Blood for Oil

Published June 1, 2006

The U.S. Department of Transportation on March 29 announced the first-ever fuel economy requirements for sport utility vehicles (SUVs), vans, and pickup trucks weighing more than 8,500 pounds. Seeking to appease environmental activist groups and anti-SUV zealots, the new standards will cause thousands of Americans to die unnecessarily in vehicle accidents in exchange for minuscule or nonexistent oil conservation gains.

Claiming these first-ever rules do not go far enough in restricting consumer choice in fuel economy, activist attorneys general in 10 states filed a federal lawsuit during the first week of May seeking even more stringent restrictions.

Standards Bring Death Toll

It has long been established that fuel economy standards lead directly to an astonishing number of unnecessary vehicle passenger deaths that also shatter the lives of an untold number of surviving family members. According to a 2002 study by the National Academy of Sciences (Effectiveness and Impact of Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) Standards), existing fuel economy mandates have caused 1,300 to 2,600 traffic deaths every year they have been in effect. The standards were imposed in 1975.

More Americans needlessly die on the roads each and every year as a result of these fuel economy standards than have died in Iraq during the entirety of both Gulf wars combined. All of this merely to “conserve” a little oil.

The reason for these fuel economy-related traffic deaths is that although technologies are continuously being researched to improve automotive fuel performance, currently the most cost-effective way to enhance fuel economy is to make vehicles lighter. When a vehicle is involved in an accident, the lighter structure provides less protection to its occupants.

A fitting analogy can be easily demonstrated in your front yard. Take a heavy can of spaghetti sauce and toss it gently against a wall or drop it on the sidewalk. The can may dent a little, but it will likely preserve the integrity of the sauce inside. Now take a can of soda pop, with its thin aluminum casing, and toss it against the same brick wall or drop it on the same sidewalk. Even with a very soft toss, the can ruptures and the soda pop explodes like a volcanic eruption.

The same effect occurs, with tragic consequences, when fuel economy standards force people into lighter, less crashworthy vehicles.

‘Conservation’ Message False

The oil “conservation” message is especially paradoxical. The theory goes that “conserving” oil will make America less dependent on foreign sources and will lower the price for everybody. But is this really true? And who really benefits from conservation?

Regarding foreign oil dependency, fuel economy standards actually increase American dependence on foreign sources. It is significantly less expensive to recover oil from mega-oil deposits in the flat, sandy deserts of the Middle East than in more modest deposits in Alaskan tundra and American hills and wilderness. Cutting back demand merely induces oil companies to cut back on more expensive American production while continuing to cherry-pick production from less-expensive sources overseas.

As to the effect on prices, the fuel economy zealots assume modest fuel economy increases will have a significant and measurable impact on world oil prices. This is narcissistic in the extreme. Cutting back automotive fuel consumption in this country even by as much as 10 or 20 percent will hardly make a dent in global oil demand and, therefore, in world oil prices. Moreover, any initial lowering of oil prices would eventually be negated as Americans took advantage of lower prices by driving more, thus leading to a rebound in demand.

Regs Unnecessary

For those who wish to save money at the gas pump, the answer is simple and requires no new government restrictions on our freedom to purchase the car, van, SUV, or pickup truck of our choice. Nobody is stopping the fuel economy zealots from buying compact cars that get anywhere from 35 to 60 miles per gallon. I own one myself, and I had quite a selection to choose from. The cars are widely available in showrooms across the country.

People who value fuel economy and oil conservation can vote with their wallets and purchase a compact car or a hybrid. People who value safety should similarly be allowed to vote with their wallets and purchase a larger and more crashworthy vehicle. The only people who pay the extra premium for 14-mile-per-gallon vehicles are the people who choose to buy them and fill up more often.

At the end of the day, the only real effects of heightened fuel economy mandates are hundreds of unnecessary traffic deaths each year, together with exponentially more lives shattered by the loss of close family members–all for a symbolic gesture of frustration at oil prices and irrational hatred of SUV owners.

Is this symbolic gesture really worth sentencing hundreds of Americans each and every year to die unnecessarily on the roads?

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.

For more information …

Effectiveness and Impact of Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) Standards, 2002, National Academies Press,

“Fuel Efficiency Regulations Cost Lives and Money,” National Center for Public Policy Research, August 2002,