The United States relies on foreign countries for roughly 60 percent of the oil needed to run the economy. That makes us dangerously dependent on other sometimes hostile nations — far more dependent than we were at the time of the Arab oil embargo back in the 1970s.
The pending energy bill could do something to cure this dependency, but so far the House and Senate have chosen not to act.
This inaction is hard to defend, given that the bulk of our nation’s imported oil is used for transportation, and the technology exists today to improve fuel economy without compromising safety. Yet, opponents of fuel economy (CAFE) standards keep trotting out the same old discredited arguments, posing a false choice between fuel economy and safety.
To suggest that automakers today would have no choice but to make cars lighter and smaller to improve fuel efficiency is absurd. Such claims should have been put to rest in July 2001. That’s when the National Academy of Sciences, the nation’s top body of scientists and engineers, reported that “it is technically feasible and potentially economical to improve fuel economy without reducing vehicle weight or size and, therefore, without significantly affecting the safety of motor vehicle travel.”
The academy noted that not only do the technologies to improve fuel economy safely already exist; it concluded that those technologies might pay for themselves in fuel savings. And the report suggested that, if the appropriate technologies were applied to the heaviest and least fuel-efficient vehicles, fuel-efficient technologies might even improve safety.
It’s hard to quarrel with the academy’s conclusions when the automakers themselves are actually saying much the same thing. Ford, General Motors and Toyota have each announced plans to introduce over the next few years versions of their most popular models, including pickup trucks and SUVs that will get 40 miles per gallon. Such efficiencies are possible with hybrid technology, which Toyota and Honda have been using in some of their models since 1999. And, of course, the automakers don’t believe these high-mileage vehicles will be any less safe than their conventional, less-efficient counterparts.
The president has acknowledged that some steps can be taken to improve fuel economy. The administration has announced plans to increase fuel economy standards but only by 1.5 miles per gallon by 2007 — far less than what is needed and much smaller than what is possible.
Congress can and should do more to increase CAFE standards as part of the energy bill now in conference. Improvements in fuel economy are in our grasp to make, and to make safely. Improving fuel economy would not limit consumer choice, hurt automakers or reduce safety. Rather, increasing CAFE standards would save consumers money, improve our nation’s energy security, and reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. We have no excuse for delay.
Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) is chairman of the Science Committee.