Time to Fight the CAFE Leviathan

Published March 1, 2002

Ronald Reagan once said that a federal program, once started, is the closest thing we know to immortality. That saying is being proven true in spades with efforts in the U.S. Senate to perpetuate and strengthen corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) mandates.

The CAFE requirements were first introduced in 1975 in response to the 1973 Arab oil embargo, long lines at the gasoline pumps, and skyrocketing gas prices. The primary goal of CAFE was to partially immunize American drivers against the effects of the embargo by requiring our cars to use less gasoline. A secondary goal was to encourage lower gasoline prices by reducing demand.

In 2002, the irrefutable facts are that oil embargoes don’t occur anymore, and gasoline prices are no higher than they were 20 years ago. Indeed, if you factor inflation into the equation, gasoline prices today are substantially lower today than they were 20 years ago.

With this in mind, it is baffling that Washington politicians are pushing for new, draconian increases in fuel economy requirements. If oil embargoes no longer occur, and inflation-adjusted gasoline prices have been falling for decades, where is the need for higher CAFE requirements?

Guzzling Too Much?

CAFE proponents argue that SUVs, for example, inefficiently guzzle more gas than they’re worth. If that’s the case, there is a solution … don’t buy them. A corollary argument is that people who “do the right thing” and buy fuel-efficient subcompacts nevertheless have to pay higher fuel prices driven up by inefficient SUVs. Such an argument overlooks the fact that inflation-adjusted gasoline prices have been falling for decades. Subcompact drivers are paying less for gasoline than ever before, with or without SUVs being on the road.

Another fallacy of the “your extravagance is hurting me in the pocketbook” argument becomes apparent when applied to other issues. Should obese people be denied permission to buy two or more Big Macs, since their unnecessary excess makes Big Mac prices higher for the rest of us? Should Americans be limited to one out-of-state vacation every decade, given that unnecessary travel drives up gasoline prices, hotel prices, and restaurant prices for the rest of us? Of course not–in America we don’t play that game.

A Matter of National Security?

A newly proffered rationale is that higher CAFE standards are important to national security because they would reduce our dependency on foreign oil. This argument, too, is flawed.

First, as vehicles get better gas mileage, car owners will drive their vehicles more, mitigating any gasoline conservation. Second, oil is a world market. If American consumers were to cut their domestic gasoline consumption, we’d but less crude oil from foreign and domestic suppliers. Reduced consumption will not reduce the share of oil America buys from foreign countries. Only increases in domestic production will accomplish that goal.

The simple fact is CAFE is a misguided notion that is no longer necessary, assuming it ever was necessary. That alone is an indictment against retaining, let along significantly tightening, CAFE standards. But even that fails to capture the full story.

Deadly Consequences

The National Academy of Sciences has determined that CAFE, even at its current levels, contributes to between 1,300 and 2,600 traffic deaths each and every year. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has estimated that since CAFE was first implemented, 46,000 traffic deaths would have been avoided if people were driving heavier cars.

Too many people have already been sacrificed at the altar of “fuel efficiency.” Further raising CAFE standards would kill additional thousands of innocent people each year.

In addition to costing American lives, higher CAFE standards would cost thousands of American workers their jobs. Studies indicate tighter CAFE standards could cost more than 100,000 American jobs in the auto and supplier industries. As the United Auto Workers union has warned, new CAFE legislation “directly threatens the jobs of thousands of UAW members.”

Finally, and just as importantly, is the issue of freedom. What makes America a beacon of liberty is the freedom we enjoy in our everyday lives. Freedom to choose the car, pickup truck, or SUV that each of us prefers is as fundamental a freedom as the freedom to choose where we live, where we shop, what we eat, and how we live our daily lives. Do we really want to sacrifice one of our basic freedoms for a few miles per gallon?

It is time for Washington to stand up against the forces of leviathan. If the politicians will not or cannot kill CAFE, they must at least restrict its further, deadly growth.

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News, a monthly publication of The Heartland Institute.