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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > DOT’s Proposal to Reduce Fuel Economy Standards

Prominent scientists are warning that increasing combustion of oil, gas and coal is feeding the dreaded Greenhouse Effect — the warming of the planet with awesome consequences for climate and sea levels. Government economists are pointing to the inexorable climb of oil imports — nearing the 50% of domestic consumption level — to the United States. Motorists are experiencing smog and pollution of the air as highways become more congested with gas guzzling vehicles.

So what has the Reagan Government just proposed? You guessed it, perhaps? The Transportation Department has just proposed reducing the fuel economy standards of 1989 and 1990 model automobiles from the required average of 27.5 miles per gallon for a manufacturer’s car fleet to 26.5 miles per gallon.

Allowing a worse level of fuel economy as demanded by General Motors and Ford is not a concession to any lead time arguments by these two auto giants. For the 1975 Energy Conservation Act gave auto builders ten years to reach an average of 27.5 miles per gallon. Chrysler and many foreign car makers met this standard, some easily. But GM and Ford, facing hundreds of millions of dollars in penalties, decided to win in Washington instead of on the assembly line.

Soon after Reagan took office in 1981, GM started pressuring to repeal the fuel efficiency law — an effort it continues to this day.

Congress properly resisted both the auto makers and the White House. So, GM and Ford decided to get the Transportation Department to abuse its discretion under the law and relax the standard. The supine Department, under Elizabeth Dole, did just that for the 1986, 1987 and 1988 model cars. Light trucks were also given a similar treatment.

Both Dole and her successor as Transportation Department Secretary, James Burnley, swallowed the argument given to them by GM and Ford that not doing their bidding will lose jobs to overseas GM and Ford plants. Each time these two companies made this specious argument, Chrysler rebutted

it and explained that its two competitors wanted weaker fuel standards so they could continue to build big cars which are more profitable.

Nonetheless, both Dole and Burnley, after hearing many detailed rebuttals against lowering the fuel regulation, accepted as gospel the bluffs and blusters by GM and Ford that they will shift production overseas. Last week Burnley added arrogance to his and Dole’s obeisance when he called the fuel savings standard “a dinosaur that should be extinct” because, he added, it puts U.S. jobs at risk. He seems to forget that poor fuel economy has already cost U.S. auto workers many jobs lost to more fuel efficient imports. Burnley is setting the stage for an encore when gasoline prices rise again.

Congress enacted the 1975 energy conservation law land made, the only restraints on regular upgrading to be technological and economic feasibility. According to Clarence Ditlow, engineering director of the Center for Auto Safety, to meet these fuel standards, manufacturers made many small cars in the U.S. that might otherwise have been shifted to foreign plants. “Strong standards not only save gas,” he said. “They save jobs.”

They also save motorists money. A pre-Reagan Department of Transportation told Congress in 1980 that the average purchaser of a 1980 car would save $1700 in gasoline costs over the life of the car because of the fuel standards. By 1985 the Department predicted that if the higher standards of 27.5 miles per gallon were met, a car buyer in that year would save an additional $1600.

The Department also advised Congress that it was both technically and economically feasible to reach the 50 miles per gallon level by 1990. What a difference a Presidential election makes! The Reagan Transportation Department scrapped its crack team of fuel efficiency engineers, lowered the fuel standard to suit GM and Ford and, worst of all, since 1981 has proposed no future higher standards to make auto companies give you cars which get even more miles for your gas dollar. Eight years lead time has been lost.

About four years ago Scientific American magazine printed a technical article concluding that in the Nineteen Nineties, the auto companies could be able to produce cars in the 70 to 90 miles per gallon range. Already Toyota and VW have production model cars that reach the Sixties and Seventies. Increasingly these gasoline economies will include the larger vehicles if the engineers are allowed to do their job.

But with predictions of a coming energy crunch and oil import crisis differing only on matters of timing, it would be wise for all Americans to ask whether they want any more of the kind of government that weakens our nation, permits more pollution of the air and more holes in motorists’ pocketbooks.

Interested citizens can write the Department of Transportation in Washington, DC about its proposed rollback of auto fuel economy standards. The Department is holding a hearing in Washington on September 14 and, by law, has to receive the opinions of the public.