Presidential candidates defy voters to reject stronger fuel efficiency standards

A survey has shown that Democrat Bill Bradley is the only US Presidential candidate to support more rigorous car fuel efficiency standards, despite figures showing that the majority of voters favour raising standards for both cars and light trucks.

The survey of the major Presidential candidates’ views on car fuel efficiency shows that even Bradley’s rival for the Democratic nomination, ‘green’ Vice President Al Gore, has shied away from stricter standards, preferring to encourage the US’ largest car makers to produce more efficient vehicles.

Meanwhile, the Republican responses range, in the case of George Bush, from avoiding the issue entirely, to outright enthusiasm for bigger cars.

Generally, the survey carried out by the member groups of the Sustainable Energy Coalition and 150 other US organisations shows that Democratic presidential candidates have made more proposals to address transportation issues than the Republicans.

The policies of the leading candidates appear to defy the views of voters. A 1998 Sustainable Energy Coalition opinion poll of more than 1,000 registered voters found that more than 80% of those surveyed favoured raising fuel efficiency standards for both cars and light trucks, including Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs).

One of the few signs of support for a crackdown on US cars has come from former Senator Bill Bradley. Bradley has expressed his support for strengthening Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards “over time” and extending those now covering passenger cars to include light trucks and SUVs as well.

New vehicle fuel efficiency has been declining since the mid-1980s, when Congress last increased CAFE standards. CAFE standards require companies to maintain the average fuel efficiency of new vehicles at around 28 miles per gallon (12km/l) for cars and 21 MPG (9km/l) for light trucks (which includes minivans, pickups, and SUVs).

However, CAFE has no control over how many vehicles may be sold in each category, and the increasing popularity of light trucks has caused the fuel efficiency of the average new vehicle on the road to drop by 2MPG (0.85km/l) since 1988, according to the Washington Energy Policy Group.
Standards of 45MPG (19km/l) for new cars and 35MPG (15km/l) for new light trucks are proposed for introduction by 2005.

During the recent Senate debate on a rider to the Transportation Appropriations bill that would continue the five-year moratorium that blocks tighter CAFE standards, Bradley declared it to be “a particularly offensive rider” and urged his former colleagues in the Senate to reject it. Forty Senators subsequently voted to oppose the rider. All the same, the CAFE rider was ultimately included in the transportation bill.

Bradley has also said he wants “to get car owners to get old clunkers off the road … and to encourage the production and use of cleaner cars” as well as “improve mobility for everyone but in less environmentally damaging ways.”

Al Gore has resisted calls by the environmental community to press for stricter CAFE standards, opting instead to “join with the Big Three automakers to create the Public/Private Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles [designed] to help industry efforts to triple the fuel efficiency of today’s vehicles.”

According to the Environmental News Network, Al Gore urged President Clinton to veto the CAFE rider but the White House ignored his recommendation.

Gore has also called for “investing in mass transit and light rail and [for] helping communities develop alternatives to clogged highways [including] walkable, bikeable neighborhoods” as part of a broader initiative addressing the problem of suburban sprawl.

Among the Republicans, Governor of Texas George Bush has opted to sidestep the question of CAFE standards, telling the Associated Press that it is a federal issue. This is despite the fact that the Houston area this year has experienced more severe smog problems than Los Angeles, recording eight of the ten highest ozone pollution peaks in the country. Bush also notes that he would “support cleaner gasoline standards across the country.”

The other Republican candidates all appear to oppose strengthened CAFE standards and two use obscure political arguments to defend their positions.

  • Publisher Steve Forbes has stated his opposition to higher CAFE standards, offering a free market vision of environmental stewardship that opposes “old Soviet-style command-and-control” regulations.
  • Ambassador Alan Keyes was reported in a 1996 Energy America survey as saying that “CAFE kills 2,000 – 4,000 people a year by making larger, safer cars less affordable; it’s an assault on the family car and should be abolished.”
  • Senator Orrin Hatch has voted against a resolution that would have directed the Senate conferees for the Transportation Appropriations bill to oppose the CAFE-freeze rider. Hatch acknowledges that “automobiles are a major source of urban pollution” and has proposed tax credits – rather than federal mandates – for the purchase of alternative fuels “such as hydrogen, natural gas, propane, methanol, and electricity” as well as for the purchase of electric and alternative fuel vehicles.
  • Senator John McCainchose to withhold his name from a Senate letter to the White House urging it to resist the CAFE rider. However, the Sustainable Energy Commission reports that McCain could hold hearings next year in the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on the issue of increasing CAFE standards. McCain has also expressed support for developing alternative fuels to reduce pollution, although he opposes continuing the federal ethanol tax credit. He has called for strengthening emissions controls on all gasoline or diesel-powered engines, including cars and trucks.

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