The power to do nothing about fuel economy

Bush says he'd use the power to set standards for cars "wisely." Don't count on it.

Tim Grieve
April 28, 2006 9:45PM (UTC)

George W. Bush has a plan to address the staggeringly high prices Americans are paying at the pump, and it won't come as a surprise to anyone who's been paying attention: Give me more power.

Posing in front of a gas station in Biloxi, Miss., Thursday, Bush said Congress should give his administration "a capacity to raise CAFE standards on automobiles." The president noted that he already has such authority when it comes to light trucks, and he vowed to use the power "wisely" if Congress extends it to cars as well.


Notice what the president didn't say: While he said he wants the power to increase fuel-economy standards for cars, he didn't say anything to suggest that he'd use that power to, you know, increase fuel-economy standards for cars. You'd think that maybe it was implied in what he said -- why talk about fuel-economy standards in the course of a discussion of gas prices unless you're talking about raising those standards? -- but the Bush administration's track record on the issue suggests otherwise.

Last summer, Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta unveiled the Bush administration's new CAFE standards for light trucks. Rather than raising standards across the board, Mineta said the administration would be creating six subgroups of trucks, each with its own fuel-economy requirement. The result: Automakers would be free to continue to build massive, gas-guzzling SUVs without having to worry about offsetting their consumption by offering more oil- and environment-responsible minivans and smaller trucks. And the largest of the large SUVs? They're not even included in the administration's CAFE standards until 2011.

So while it's high time for somebody to do something about the standard for automobiles -- it hasn't changed since 1990 -- there's little reason to believe that the Bush administration would actually do so. Indeed, even as Bush is pushing for the power to set fuel-economy standards for cars, the White House is making it clear -- don't worry, Detroit! -- that Bush won't be rushing off to raise any requirements. In a letter to Congress, Mineta says that simply increasing CAFE standards for cars might increase fatalities and raise healthcare costs by prompting automakers to make smaller, lighter and less safe vehicles. "As a result," Mineta says, "the administration would oppose any increase in passenger car CAFE standards without corresponding reform."


Other administration aides said that Bush might ultimately support higher fuel-economy standards for cars but only after what the Detroit Free Press called a "scientific review." And if you've been following the Bush administration's handiwork on, say, global warming or the morning-after pill, you know exactly what that means.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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