Examining the Real Impact of CAFE

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

I am deeply concerned about my daughter's future. I worry about her having decent health care, a good-paying job, and having to carry the financial load of millions of retirees. I am also worried how climate change will impact her life and the devastating effects it will have on the world around her.

Climate change, access to health care, good paying jobs, supporting our retirees; these are all core concerns that Democrats share. So why are Democrats being forced to choose between the above values? By taking sides on increasing the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE), we are being divided between environmentalist and auto worker, between taking a stand against global warming and keeping some of the best jobs ever created in the United States. We do not have to be divided, but stronger leadership is necessary.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. Senate moved increases in CAFE, and it is likely the House will follow suit. Chrysler, Ford, GM, Toyota and others are lobbying against the measure.

According to the Detroit News, the initial CAFE proposal would raise average fuel efficiency over the next 12 years by about 40 percent to 35 miles per gallon for cars and trucks combined. This would be followed by 4 percent increases per year over the next 22 years until reaching 52 MPG. The Senate version deletes the 4% yearly increases.

As a staff person in the State Legislature, I have been taught to examine and dissect not only the positions of those we disagree with, but our own policies as well. I often thought I had to choose between the environment and the auto worker - until I looked at the numbers.

The tragedy of this situation is that when you look at the numbers, increasing CAFE - even if car makers can reach the mileage goals - will likely have little or no impact on the environment.

The impact of the American-owned fleet of cars on the environment is much smaller than one would expect. When we take the total amount of CO2 emitted from ours cares annually as reported by Environmental Defense and divide it by the total world-wide CO2 emissions, as reported by the United Nations, we realize that our cars emit 1.2% of the world's CO2. Sources from the Office of Senator Carl Levin concur with my assessment indicating that American cars account for 1.5 percent of the world's pollution. For arguments sake, I will use the higher figure of 1.5 percent.

If we increase the gas mileage of cars by 40 percent, it will not take the existing 240+ Million cars off the road. Again, for arguments sake, we ban all existing cars and replace them with new ones, so the fleet now instantly gets 40 percent better mileage. We have now reduced our 1.5 percent by 40 percent; meaning, we have reduced the world-wide pollution by a whole .6 percent. Even in this impossible scenario, that .6 percent improvement is likely eaten up by the yearly increases in the number of cars on the road and the number of miles driven. According to Cambridge Energy Research and the Federal Highway Administration, up until 2005, Americans were increasing the number of miles we drive by 2.7 percent a year. Since 1980, more than 50 million more drivers have been added to our roads.

Increasing CAFE is a waste of time and money because it will not ultimately help the environment, but it will waste precious research and development dollars that are necessary to find real solutions that could entirely replace the internal combustion engine. The American auto industry doesn't have R&D dollars to waste, so diverting their resources to stopgap measures such as hybrid technologies or short-term modifications to existing power trains will only delay the development of lower-pollution technologies. It should also be noted that just two weeks ago, General Motors shifted 700 power train engineers toward the goal of putting fuel cell and electric car technologies on the road.

I described this situation as a tragedy because we may soon wake up and realize that we have won one battle for in the name of the environment, but lost two real wars -- one in actually protecting our air and the other of protecting our workers.

When industry leaders object to added regulations their claims of job loss is often overheated rhetoric. In this case, their claims should not be dismissed. We have a marketplace created through globalization that makes small, efficient cars unprofitable. According to industry analysts, even super-efficient Toyota loses money on every hybrid Prius it sells. Yet, this is the same type of technology that will be needed to reach the short term CAFE goals.

I propose we look at much bigger solutions than CAFE.

If we, as environmentalists, go home happy once we have passed an increase in CAFE, then we have settled. We have been bought off by politicians who are afraid to really tackle global warming. We need a "Manhattan Project" on clean energy creation and clean transportation systems. We need trade policies that make efficient cars profitable. We need to look at all sources of emissions to cut the release of greenhouse gasses. And, without a doubt, we must make sure our trade partners do the same through enactment of tough labor and environmental standards in our trade agreements. A comprehensive solution is the only solution to global warming.

Our core Democratic values are at stake here. We have been divided among friends and it's time to come together to accomplish all of our goals. If we don't, we will find ourselves out of air, out of a job, and out of power.


steves 2:35 PM  

Excellent analysis, but what impact does CAFE have on reducing demand for fossil fuels?

I have a great deal of respect for some 'environmentalists', but not the anti-technology Luddites or people that use shaky science to promote an agenda (such as Rachel Carson). I agree that we need to find a comprehensive strategy to address global warming and greenhouse gas emissions. I notice that China now leads the world in GG emissions. How likely is it that they will come on board?

Smitty 2:56 PM  

excellent post, bob. And I agree: we will waste our time and precious money on halting R&D on alternative fuel sources in lieu of revamping our engines to cut emissions. It is a waste of time and money. Rather, I would be much happier in seeing R&D continue on alternative fuel sources combined with efforts to revamp how we power ourselves. Our auto industry can be and is a major part of that reserarch right now, and we risk setting that research behind by playing with CAFE standards.

You are right, bob. This, CAFE, is hiding our heads in the sand rather than tackling the real issue.

Bob "Chief Beer Advocate" 10:09 PM  

”Excellent analysis, but what impact does CAFE have on reducing demand for fossil fuels?”

As far as increasing our mileage goes to reduce our reliance on foreign oil, I'd have to do similar calculations, but only base it on what we burn in our cars as a percentage of our total fossil fuel use. That will take some research. That said, one unknown source said that if we completely switched to hybrids today, we would be back to where we started in only 3 years due to American driving more miles every year. This is another reason to replace the internal combustion engine.

The best way to reduce the reliance on foreign oil at least in the short term is with E-85.

Let’s compare two cars using 2007 EPA (most recent available) estimates over a simulated 100 mile trip:

Toyota Prius on regular gas
51 mpg hwy on regular gas (when dreaming, city estimate slightly higher)
100miles/51 mpg = 1.96 gallons of regular

Impala w. 3.5L V-6, on E-85
21mpg hwy while burning E-85 (28mpg on regular gas)

100 miles/21 mpg = 4.76 gallons of E-85

At first glance the Prius wins right? No. If our goal is to burn less imported oil and we assume all the above gas is imported then the Impala wins because only 15% of the 4.76 gallons burned is oil, the rest is ethanol.

4.76 gallons x .15 = .71 gallons!

The Impala burn less foreign oil!

This wasn’t even a fair test because I compared a large sedan to the smaller (and often more expensive) Prius, but you get the point.

steves 6:48 AM  

I have heard some complaints about ethanol in regards to how much energy that goes into producing it vs. how much energy it yields.

I can't believe I am saying this, but with gas costing as much as it does, I would prefer a car with better mileage. I can't see buying a large sedan or an SUV at this point.

Smitty 8:51 AM  

I have heard some complaints about ethanol in regards to how much energy that goes into producing it vs. how much energy it yields

We recently had one of the Profs at MSU who works specifically on the E-85 project come to our Rotary Club and give a presentation on exactly that. The "more energy to produce than what is saves" currently applies to a cellulose-based E-85, derived from switchgrass and cell walls, not corn. THe research is focusing on making the cellulose more efficient right now, because we may not be able to grow enough corn but we can certianly grow tons of the other stuff.

I will find a copy of his power point and either highlight points on a blog entry or find a way to set up a ghost site and provide a link.

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