In Detroit, the talk at the annual North American International Auto Show last week was how falling gasoline prices have spurred the public's appetite for bigger vehicles. The not-so-well concealed subtext was this: a desire by auto executives to see a delay or softening of federal fuel efficiency standards that require substantial upgrades to the gas mileage of cars sold in America in the years ahead.
That anyone connected with automobile manufacturing would suggest that U.S. standards for fuel efficiency — formally known as corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE — should be relaxed is not exactly surprising. Bigger trucks and sport utility vehicles are a major profit-center for domestic manufacturers. Yet fleet-wide fuel efficiency standards stand in their way of selling more of them.
While we sympathize with carmakers who just want to give the public what they believe the public wants, the same might be said of any business that makes a potentially lethal product, from cigarettes and alcohol to motorcycles and machine guns. We rely on government to set some limits that serve the broader public interest, whether it involves a shot of bourbon or the purchase of weapons of mass destruction.
And selling more gas guzzlers would be a lethal mistake. Just because fuel prices have dipped in recent months doesn't mean that the world has an endless supply of petroleum or that burning fossil fuels does not come with a much greater cost than is reflected on any fuel pump. If the price of cake and candy fell tomorrow, should we gorge ourselves without thought to the long-term consequences?
CAFE targets are reviewed regularly, and there can be legitimate reasons for adjusting them — vehicle safety, for instance, or reaching the limits of technology. But the current standards, which are set to rise to 37.8 miles per gallon for cars in 2016, appear perfectly achievable. Even the 2025 goal of 54.5 miles per gallon seems reasonable given that there are hybrid vehicles on the market today already in that neighborhood and electric vehicles rated at twice that efficiency.
What Detroit ought to be focused on right now is explaining to consumers why fuel efficiency is important even if the price of gasoline drops $1 a gallon. The U.S. may have markedly increased its own petroleum production in recent years, but much of the world remains dependent on unreliable sources. Reducing reliance on foreign producers not only makes economic sense, but it contributes to global political stability by reducing the clout of provocative nations like Russia, Venezuela and Iran.
And then there is the not-so-minor matter of protecting human health and forestalling global warming. Greenhouse gases from transportation are expected to become a major driver of climate change — so much so that experts have warned they may off-set potential reductions in power plant and industrial emissions. Raising fuel efficiency standards results in not only lowering carbon dioxide but also in reducing toxic gases that come out of a vehicle's tailpipe.
Detroit executives can always rationalize that selling more Escalades and fewer Volts won't dramatically change the global climate, but it's a slippery slope. The U.S. has already been slow to tackle the adverse impacts of fossil fuel dependency. Why delay even more a process that began in 2007? You can bet car makers wouldn't be pushing a similar U.S. strategy to reverse circumstances — to double-down on CAFE standards if OPEC nations cut back on production tomorrow and gas prices rose dramatically.
This country's energy policy remains a mess because our elected leaders can't seem to face up to the realities of well-established science. The current debate over the Keystone XL pipeline is a case in point. Instead of looking out for the nation's long-term interests and encouraging a sustainable approach to energy, Congress is trying to score political points on a pipeline that produces no more than several dozen permanent jobs and taps Canadian tar sands, one of the world's dirtiest sources of oil.
If low gas prices were the talk of Detroit last week, it's because the auto executives there missed the big story: Global temperatures in 2014 hit their highest level since record-keeping began in 1880. The 10 hottest years on record have all occurred since 1997, providing further evidence that climate change deniers are engaged in some serious — and dangerous — wishful thinking. If auto companies can make the case that regulators have erred in setting the standards, they're welcome to do so. But low gas prices are no justification for putting the planet's future further at risk.