When it Comes to Saving Energy, CAFE is the Way

Improved Standards Will Save Money, Protect Human Health, Improve National Security

Editor’s note: This opinion essay was printed in the Charleston Gazette and The Columbus Dispatch on 1/27/02.

By Nicholas L. Cain

Imagine if there was a simple thing we could do that would clear the skies of toxic air pollution, reduce the threat of global warming and improve our homeland security. Now imagine if this simple change could save Americans billions of dollars each year as well. Sound too good to be true? Well truth is stranger than fiction. We can ameliorate many of our energy-related woes with the stroke of a pen: By updating fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks.

Improving corporate average fuel efficiency standards — also known as CAFE — is the single biggest step we can take to reduce our dependence on imported oil and improve our energy security. And, according to a report released last summer by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), by phasing the higher standards in over ten years, automakers can reach this goal with relative ease.

Bringing fuel-efficiency standards up to 40 miles-per-gallon (mpg) would save consumers an estimated $9.8 billion a year on fuel costs while reducing the amount of global warming gases and toxic air pollution we pump into the atmosphere by hundreds of millions of tons.

Even better, updating these standards could cut our oil use by 3 million barrels per day — that’s far more than we currently take from the Persian Gulf. And, in under ten years, this simple change would save more oil than is thought to exist under the entire Arctic wildlife refuge.

There is a bill now in Congress that will update these standards and set us on the road to energy independence. But, despite the many benefits, some are fighting this common-sense solution and pushing to leave CAFE standards where they are – stuck in the mid-80s.

Opponents of updated CAFE standards have long questioned whether the technology exists to make these improvements happen. But according to the UCS report, Drilling in Detroit: Tapping Automaker Ingenuity to Build Safe and Efficient Automobiles, by 2012 automakers could meet these updated standards without harming the safety or comfort of our cars or trucks.

How will they do it? As the report shows in great detail, the lion’s share of the fuel savings can be made through improving drive-train efficiency. And, as car manufacturers continue to innovate, we will be able to do even better. Using hybrid gas-electric technology, the UCS estimates that cars and trucks might be able to get 55 miles-per-gallon by 2020.

Updating CAFE standards would also have another crucial benefit: it will reduce our dependence on oil. Cars and trucks account for nearly 70 percent of our current oil consumption. And, when it comes to energy security, oil is America’s Achilles heal — not only must we maintain a supply imported from overseas, but we must protect the pumps, pipelines and storage tanks required to move, process and store petroleum. Though improved fuel-efficiency standards won’t solve all of our oil-related problems, the less oil we use, the safer we are.

CAFE standards have already been overwhelmingly effective: In 2000 alone American consumers saved over $90 billion while keeping 700 million tons of global warming pollution out of our atmosphere. But the original schedule for these standards ended in 1985 and since then, neither Congress nor the federal government has done anything to spur innovation.

Bringing fuel-efficiency standards up-to-date will save us billions of dollars at the pump, reduce the amount of pollution in our skies and make our nation less dependent on imported oil. Now that the technology is ripe and the costs low, it is time to act in the public interest and improve fuel-efficiency standards.

Nicholas L. Cain is Communications Director for the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security.