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Last week the Obama Administration announced new energy-efficiency standards for new cars and light trucks, with a carmaker’s fleet average scheduled to be 54.5 miles per gallon in 2025. The environmentalist’s initial reaction is be applaud, but analysis leads to tears at the collective stupidity of our federal government. The new mileage standards will make new cars more expensive, but the higher mileage standards will do little to discourage people from driving as many miles as before and consuming their accustomed volumes of gasoline. The intelligent solution would be a high carbon tax which would lead everyone to drive less by making driving more expensive, both in old and in new cars. But no, the new standards will make new more-fuel-efficient cars more expensive, which will encourage people to stick with their old, inefficient clunkers and to drive them as much as ever, burning our artifically-cheap gas.
The United States political system ignores the very high real costs which burning coal, oil and natural gas impose on our individual, national and global health; Democrats and Republicans pander shamelessly to voters’ please-me-now desire to pay less at the gas pump. Average fuel taxes paid in America are about $.49 a gallon, far lower than in most industrialized countries. Great Britain taxes gas and diesel at $3.95 per gallon, and the high tax both encourages Britons to drive less and encourages manufacturers to turn out more efficient cars. According to today’s New York Times article “Taxes Show One Way to Save Fuel,” Ford makes a compact Fiesta for sale in Britain that gets nearly 86 miles per gallon, while the Fiestas sold in America go only 33 miles on a gallon of gas.
American consumers respond to market prices, just as in the rest of the world. When U. S. gas prices climbed above $4.00 per gallon in 2008, people cut their driving sharply, then resumed driving more miles when gas prices declined. The gasoline prices we pay do not come close to paying the real costs of filling up our cars – not the military’s protecting Mideast oil supplies, not the health costs, not the car’s CO2 contributions to global warming. A Vietnam veteran I know has a rule of thumb from his combat experiences: people take strong, hard action when their survival is threatened. I firmly believe the survival of a comfortable, stable America is threatened by climate change, that our situation calls for strong, hard action, and that ill-conceived fuel-efficiency standards implemented in 2025 will not help us much, if at all.
Image by Captain76 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons