Calculating Energy Bill’s Real Figures
I am amazed that the politicians haven't figured that ethanol is bad, bad, bad.
WASHINGTON, Dec. 3 — Gas mileage would go up under the compromise reached by Congressional leaders last week, but not as high as the trumpeted numbers. And despite the tougher 35 m.p.g. standard, a growing population of drivers would push up total fuel use, as well as greenhouse gas emissions — but not as rapidly as would occur without the legislation.
Those are some of the conclusions of auto policy experts, who were still struggling on Monday to determine exactly what the proposal would do, even as President Bush threatened to veto the energy legislation, still under negotiation, that includes these provisions.
The fleet average for vehicles in the 2020 model year would be set at 35 miles per gallon, versus about 25 miles per gallon for cars and light trucks today. Both numbers, though, come with a familiar caveat: actual mileage may vary.
In fact, the actual performance falls short of the current standard by about 20 percent, as would be true as well of the higher standard if the proposal becomes law.
Manufacturers will be encouraged to keep selling cars that can burn rich mixtures of ethanol with gasoline, even where there is no place to buy it. The compromise phases out the credit for building “flex fuel” cars more slowly than current law does.
The compromise establishes a combined standard for cars and light trucks, as opposed to the current system, while also shifting the structure of the rule from a simple average of all car models or all light truck models to an “attribute based” system.
That approach establishes an incentive to build every vehicle, whether a compact or a behemoth, to be as fuel efficient as possible. The standard would be set according to the vehicle’s “footprint,” its wheelbase and track width.
In the last few years, the Bush administration had vehemently opposed raising the car standard — which had not been changed since 1985 — unless it was given the authority to switch to the footprint system.
Light trucks were already on a footprint standard, and the Transportation Department was setting regular, if modest, increases in the standard. But a federal court threw these out last month as not being strict enough.
The White House on Monday said that the energy bill compromise agreed upon by Congressional leaders failed to satisfy President Bush on a number of points, including the way automobile mileage was measured and regulated.
Allan B. Hubbard, the director of the White House national economic council, said that Mr. Bush would veto the bill unless what he called “regulatory uncertainty and confusion” were removed by requiring the Environmental Protection Agency and the Transportation Department to settle on a single mileage-measuring system.
On another issue separate from the auto mileage rule, Mr. Hubbard said that Mr. Bush could not accept a mandate that electric utilities generate 15 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020. At the same time, Mr. Hubbard complained that the bill’s provision for production of alternative fuels like ethanol do not go as far or as fast as the White House wants.
Even if the bill becomes law, the fuel-economy improvement that it calls for will probably not be great enough to prevent some increase in American fuel consumption because of the expected growth in the number of cars on the road and miles traveled.
In 2020, the combined total of gasoline and ethanol use would be slightly higher than it is today, according to David Friedman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, on whose calculations the Democratic leaders relied.
What that requirement would mean for car buyers is not completely clear. A much larger number of vehicles are likely to rely on hybrid power systems combining an internal combustion engine and an electric motor, while more fuel-efficient diesel engines would also proliferate. Plug-in hybrids, relying more on power from the electricity grid, are likely to be on the rise.
Mr. Friedman predicted that by 2020, when the higher standard is to be fully phased in, many more cars are likely to have automatic transmissions with more gears, or a continuously variable transmission, which would translate power from the engine to the wheels with less of a loss.
“The technology is there to increase mileage,” said Scott Gerber, a spokesman for Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who helped engineer the compromise. Many more small cars and hybrids will be built, Mr. Gerber added, but “you’re also going to have S.U.V.’s.”
“That market is not going to go away, because people like S.U.V.’s.”
At General Motors, Greg Martin, a spokesman, expressed concern about what the changes would do to vehicle prices.
“We have a product plan well under way that will offer more technology and alternative fuel choices now and in the future,” he said. “What is unclear, however, is the economic equation, or the price-value judgments, that consumers make in any vehicle purchase.”
At Environmental Defense, John DeCicco, a senior fellow, said: “I think of necessity we’re going to see a slowing down of the horsepower war. They’re going to have to take some of that efficiency going forward and allocate it to fuel economy.”
Among the unknowns, of course, is the price of the gasoline that will be saved. If the price is high, either because of market forces or increased taxes, government standards may only have a modest role in promoting smaller or higher-efficiency vehicles, because consumers will already be seeking out fuel efficiency and automakers will have a strong incentive to meet that demand on their own.
In the end, the biggest impact of the legislation would come from ending the distinction between cars and light trucks, which include S.U.V.’s, minivans and pickups, eliminating the incentive for companies to move customers into the generally bigger, more profitable S.U.V.’s. Current law sets a floor of 27.5 miles per gallon for cars and 22. 2 miles a gallon for light trucks.
The new system continues to count cars and trucks differently, but requires the government to make sure that the whole fleet reaches the 35 miles per gallon average. If it does not, the Transportation Department must make the car or light truck standard tougher.