Government can green us up |

Government can green us up

Alan Braunholtz
Vail CO, Colorado

President Bush and some senators should be commended for trying to raise the gas mileage standards in the new energy policy bill. We’ve done nothing for 20 years and have let slide all the gains the original Corporate America Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards achieved when introduced in the OPEC fuel crisis of the 1970s.

From 1975-1987 CAFE raised the average miles per gallon from 13 to 22. Gas use dropped from 18 to 15 million barrels per day. This undermined OPEC’s cartel as members pumped over their quota to maintain revenue as prices fell.

Today, increased mpg would have a greater effect as we use a larger percentage of gas on transportation now than 20 years ago. We’re driving further, more often and in larger vehicles, while in contrast industry gets more efficient with its fuel use.

The current proposals aren’t nearly aggressive enough, but every journey begins with one step. The 4 percent increase per year means after 10 years we’ll be using less oil. Close all the loopholes and add in a gas tax and we’d really start making changes.

Raising those standards is the most important part of any energy policy if we want to end our addiction to Middle Eastern oil. A smaller fuel-efficient car supports our troops a lot more than an SUV with a bumper sticker. This allows for a foreign policy less beholden to unpalatable regimes that happen to have a lot of oil.

The rest of the world somehow manages without driving around in large empty vehicles and we can, too. Public safety policy has always allowed regulation of vehicles on public roads ” are speed limits an intrusion on liberty or common sense for the common good? ” and pollution and gas mileage are part of that.

Typically opponents of CAFE play the fear card with “this will kill Americans because small cars are more dangerous.” It’s a warped view saying small cars are more dangerous; the big cars we make are what endangers them. It also overlooks great technological improvements in cars and safety. Airbags, crumple zones, steering control, etc. provide even the smallest cars with four- to five-star crash ratings. Trucks often have a rigid frame and avoid crumple zones for harsher impacts. Nimbleness, shorter braking distances and low centers of gravity help avoid accidents in the first place. The safest accident is the one you don’t have and research shows drivers of larger vehicles tend to drive more recklessly and aggressively because they have a false sense of security/superiority. This makes everyone worse off.

If CAFE opponents are so enamored with statistical risks to Americans I’m waiting for their views on the statistics for speed limits (more force equals more damage), cell phone use while driving, tailpipe emissions that help kill a lot of people with asthma and urban sprawl and how the more miles you drive the more at risk you are.

Then there’s the need to actually start doing something about global warming. The impacts of climate change aren’t going to wait for the market place to catch up to environmental reality. Climate change is demonstrating a massive widespread failure of free market economics. There’s such a lag time and so much momentum building that the market place can’t react. We’re fobbing off the costs onto others who have no voice in our markets. Most of the costs ” and these are human costs of famine, floods and misery ” will be borne by poor subsistence farmers of the developing world. They have done nothing to create this problem.

Future generations will also cover our debts and our current attitude of “Why should we pay now for tomorrow’s problems? Let their advanced technology solve the problem.” isn’t honest accounting. What if it can’t? Ask King Canute if power and money can hold back the tides.

Powerful interests make a lot of money off carbon fuels and we have to overcome their inertia to change our economy. Regulations and planning can work with the free market to stimulate that jump. GM created the EV1, an electrical car and a technological marvel in response to California’s emissions regulations. They destroyed it in spite when they helped overturn those regulations, but Toyota picked up some of the technology and ran with it. Detroit’s problems are more mismanagement (and health costs) than regulation.

The developed countries regard carbon dioxide pollution as our right, as we did it first. Like water rights they’re ours to keep, but the developing world they’ll destroy our planet if they grow. This attitude doesn’t play well in China and India. As China points out, if the whole world only produced as much carbon dioxide per capita as them then there would be no problem.

Despite this, a survey by Global Market Insite on 14,000 people in 14 countries found that citizens of the developing world are much more willing to impose carbon limits/taxes on their own countries than citizens of the developed world are on theirs.

We lag behind in awareness and attitude as illustrated when we portray these mild increases in mpg as an infringement on liberty. Sorry but I’ve never seen Hummers or Excursions mentioned in the Constitution.

The survey also showed that 90 percent thought that governments needed to do more to address the problem. That shows a lack of trust in corporations to act without incentives, prodding and consistent policies.

Hopefully that 90 percent won’t have to wait another 20 years for our next step forward. We’ve got the wealth, technology and economic power to lead the world if we decide to move on this issue.

Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a biweekly column for the Daily. Send comments or questions to

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