The political landscape is littered with squandered opportunities to avert the $4-a-gallon gasoline mess we find ourselves in now. Americans would be using far less gas — and consumers and the automobile industry would be much better off — if Congress had summoned the wisdom and political courage 20, 10, even five years ago to impose tough fuel economy standards on the nation’s transportation fleet.
Another such opportunity is fast approaching, and it would be foolish to miss it. On Monday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — the federal agency that sets fuel standards — will hold hearings on a timetable that it has proposed for meeting the new fuel economy standards established in the 2007 energy act.
The law requires new cars and trucks to meet a fleetwide average of at least 35 miles per gallon by 2020, a 40 percent increase over today’s average of 25 m.p.g. That could save about one billion barrels of oil a day by 2020. As an interim step, the agency is calling for a fleetwide average of 31.6 m.p.g. by 2015.
The agency should do better. The targets Congress set were floors, not ceilings, and a raft of studies have concluded that significantly higher standards, up to 40 m.p.g., are both cost-effective and technologically achievable within Congress’s time frame.
The soaring price of gasoline is itself an argument for more aggressive standards. The higher the fuel price, the more consumers would be willing to pay up front for fuel-saving technology, and the more industry should be required to invest in that technology.
History leaves no doubt that failing to act aggressively would be a big mistake. The first fuel economy standards, passed in 1975, worked wonders, doubling automobile efficiency and allowing the country to rein in its oil consumption even as the economy grew. But over time, as the standards stayed the same, and cars grew bigger, these gains disappeared. The result was a jump in consumption and increasing dependence on imports from alarmingly unstable parts of the world.
In 1990, Richard Bryan, a liberal Democrat from Nevada, and Slade Gorton, a conservative Republican from Washington, offered a program to lift fuel standards to 40 m.p.g. by the end of the decade, which did not seem like an improbable goal. The proposal was promptly steamrollered by a bipartisan pro-industry coalition. Had it succeeded, Americans would now be consuming three million fewer barrels a day.
Even modest reforms have been swatted down. Early in his administration, President Bill Clinton proposed stronger standards for light trucks, including S.U.V.’s and minivans. Republicans, then led by Newt Gingrich, responded with a rider that banned such improvements and effectively killed any serious discussion of the issue for years.
Market forces, in the form of higher prices, are now forcing American automakers to make more fuel-efficient cars. This does not relieve the administration of its obligation to follow through with aggressive standards.