Is CAFE kaput?

Since 1975, CAFE — or corporate average fuel economy — standards have stood as America’s defining energy-efficiency strategy. Yet, despite much wailing and gnashing of teeth by activists and a handful of politicians, the standards for passenger cars haven’t been raised since 1985 — they still call for automakers’ car fleets to get an average of just 27.5 miles per gallon. And light trucks get off even easier; for the 2007 model year, they need only get an average of 22.2 mpg.

CAFE is looking old and tired, some conservationists say.

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Photo: iStockphoto.

The Bush administration this summer unveiled plans for a complicated new system to regulate auto fuel economy, but it’s been derided by enviros as laughably unambitious.

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This fall, in response to Hurricane Katrina, CAFE got an unexpected bipartisan boost when 14 Republicans and 40 Democrats in the House, led by Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), backed legislation that would up the standards to 33 mpg over the next 10 years. But the bill has little to no chance of passage under the current regime in Washington.

A growing number of politicians are coming around to the idea that the U.S. needs to reduce its demand for oil — they’re anxious over record-high gas prices and escalating tensions in the Middle East, and, after this year’s brutal hurricane season, they’re also worried about vulnerable energy infrastructure and the specter of global warming. Still, most remain wary of tightening CAFE standards.

“CAFE is and will remain an important policy instrument, but politically speaking, it’s dead,” said Ashok Gupta, senior energy economist for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Kevin Curtis, a vice president at National Environmental Trust, put it this way: “There are those who argue that CAFE has been dead for years, or even decades, given that no substantial improvements in the standards have been made since the ’70s. The difference now, for better or worse, is that most fuel-economy advocates are no longer even trying to make it seem alive.”

A Senate vote in June illustrated this point: When Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) offered an amendment to the energy bill that would have gradually increased CAFE standards to 40 mpg by the model year 2017, 67 senators opposed it. “Nay” voters included the Senate’s two most prominent Democrats, Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) and John Kerry (Mass.), both of whom had presumably done some electoral math and decided they didn’t want to piss off Michigan.

“Essentially, CAFE has become a whipping horse — an obstacle that all parties are stuck on, an ideological debate more than a practical, constructive one,” said Kit Kennedy, a senior attorney at NRDC.

Even Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club’s global-warming program and a dogged advocate of CAFE, told Muckraker, “The reality is we are not going to win on CAFE in this Congress or with this president.”

The only real progress in the works on fuel economy is at a state level, coming as a side effect of greenhouse-gas reductions. Ten states are currently planning to follow California’s lead in mandating cutbacks in carbon dioxide emissions from tailpipes, which will mean new vehicles have to get better gas mileage.

Out With the Old, in With the New

But even as CAFE fades from the spotlight on Capitol Hill, new congressional proposals designed to curb U.S. oil consumption are taking the stage.

Most prominent is the Vehicle and Fuel Choices for American Security Act introduced in November by Sens. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), which would require the federal government to reduce the nation’s energy consumption by 2.5 million barrels of oil a day within a decade. Consumption now runs 20 million barrels a day.

The act would offer grants for public transportation, give incentives for clean-energy development and biofuels, call for improved tire technology to reduce resistance and therefore increase fuel efficiency, and even impose CAFE-like standards on heavy-duty vehicles — but it wouldn’t mandate higher CAFE standards for passenger cars and light trucks. That omission helped it get support from conservative Republican senators like Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Sam Brownback (Kan.)

“Ultimately, this bill seems to be about transcending the usual rituals of the CAFE debate and teeing up other possible routes to saving oil,” said a Hill staffer familiar with the project. “The paths of public discussion on CAFE are deeply worn grooves — so much so that people have stopped thinking outside of them. CAFE opponents rely on their ritualistic waving of scary CAFE masks, and, as a result, CAFE proponents have been forced to run in circles trying to defuse the endless repetition of those scare tactics. The bill’s sponsors seem to be appealing to their conscientious legislative colleagues to think about the problem afresh.”

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has his own fresh take with a recently introduced bill that would relieve U.S. automakers of some of their huge legacy health-care costs if the companies would funnel at least half of resulting savings into the production of more fuel-efficient cars. Though Obama voted for a boost in CAFE standards in June, and initially planned to include one in this bill, he dropped it from the version he ultimately introduced.

“The story isn’t that CAFE is moot,” said Michelle Robinson, Washington director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Clean Vehicles Program. “The story is this fast-growing appetite for a new set of solutions among both Dems who represent auto-industry states and Republicans who have been out of the conversation.”

NRDC’s Kennedy agrees: “CAFE is not the only way to make huge strides in reducing our dependence on oil,” she said. “We should be open to all solutions and achieving oil savings from all sources, not just cars.”

Still, Becker of the Sierra Club doesn’t think CAFE is over and done with. “It is a good development that members of Congress are searching for new ways to save oil,” he said, “but I suspect that ultimately they will find that CAFE is the best way.”

Becker applauds the Lieberman bill for defining oil-savings targets without getting overly specific about how they’re to be reached, thereby getting around Detroit’s long-held argument that CAFE is too prescriptive. But he is hard-pressed to see how the bill’s ambitious goals could be achieved without stricter federal fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles. “It would be a long shot at best to try and reach those targets without mandating absolute improvements in fuel economy or reductions in CO2 emissions, no matter what you do to boost ethanol production or improve tire design and public transportation.”

That said, Becker is not wedded to any specific framework for efficiency requirements: “I don’t care if they call it CAFE,” he said. “If they want to call it Banana and it achieves the same goals, then I’ll support Banana.”