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CAFE Standards Alone Won’t Fix Climate Issue

More than 30 years ago, Congress succeeded in pulling our country out of one of the most serious and debilitating energy crises in its history. After the 1973 Arab oil embargo triggered nationwide fuel shortages, gas station lines often stretched on for hours. Many businesses were forced to curtail operations or entirely shut down. And oil prices, along with inflation and unemployment, soared.

In response, Congressional leaders worked together to enact a series of fuel conservation measures that were drastic, innovative and ultimately effective. We set a maximum highway speed limit of 55 mph. We put daylight saving time into effect for the whole year. We created tax credits for the development and use of alternative forms of energy. And, in 1975, we established the Corporate Average Fuel Economy program, which required automakers to meet fuel efficiency standards of 27.5 miles per gallon.

Today, we face another critical challenge — one that has again placed enormous pressure on our economy, our energy supply and, above all, our environment. The issue of global climate change has emerged as a top legislative priority for this Congress, and policymakers on both sides of the aisle are working to identify ways to lower our consumption of petroleum products and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As we turn our attention to what we can do to better protect our planet and reverse global warming trends, revising the current CAFE structure has been proposed as a potential solution.

Since its establishment, CAFE has proved to be a valuable program, spurring significant improvements in automotive design and engineering. But the world has changed since these standards were enacted. Consumer needs have evolved. New technologies have been developed. And the challenges before us are very different from the ones we confronted three decades ago. Although there is considerable debate about the impact any adjustment in CAFE standards would have on auto industry jobs, vehicle production costs and consumer safety, one thing is certain: Arbitrary increases in CAFE standards here in the U.S. will not solve the problem of global climate change.

It is time to evaluate the CAFE system in the context of these new challenges. The same tired debates are no longer sufficient, and we must find a way to move beyond them for the good of the nation and the future of the planet. This is no time to engage in a legislative battle over restructuring fuel efficiency requirements. If we are serious about addressing climate change, Congressional leaders must work quickly and cooperatively to develop comprehensive policy solutions that are fair, effective and passable.

The good news is that we are on course to accomplish such a task. Two months ago, the Energy and Commerce Committee began an exhaustive assessment of climate change. Already, we’ve conducted 10 hearings focused on the issue and have heard from more than 50 witnesses.

Although additional work must be done before we can assemble a complete legislative package on climate change, I am confident that committee members will forge reasonable, realistic policy solutions that do not pit our economy against our ecosystem.

There are two key reasons I’m optimistic about our ability to develop the legislation we need. First, when it comes to honoring and strengthening our environment, the committee has a strong record of accomplishment. Our members have come together to develop our country’s most crucial environmental protections, including the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. Second, we have succeeded in bringing American industry, including the automotive industry, to the policy discussion table. Without the active participation of industry leaders, we have little chance of tackling climate change in a way that protects both the health of our environment and the strength of our economy.

In a hearing last month, the CEOs of General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co., Chrysler Group and Toyota Motor North America Inc. testified before the committee. Each expressed a commitment to reducing carbon dioxide emissions and investing in technologies that will increase fuel efficiency. More importantly, they each committed to work with the committee in developing comprehensive legislation to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. We in Congress must now create incentives for more corporations to follow this lead.

We also must commit ourselves to seeing the legislative process through. Formulating a set of policy measures we can all embrace will require our continued attention and test our ability to compromise. But we can and must rise to the challenge. No specific policy or single person can accomplish all that needs to be done to adequately address climate change. As was the case three decades ago, a variety of steps are necessary.

Let us never forget that we borrow this planet from future generations. Congressional leaders are well-positioned to pursue and implement a comprehensive strategy capable of protecting the world we will one day leave behind. We must not squander this opportunity. Our children are depending on us.

Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) is the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.