Fuel economy and the GOP

By JIM DIPESO, REP Policy Director

AN HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: published in the Albuquerque Tribune on June 21, 2007.


One of the most important conservation bills that Congress will consider this year is being pushed by none other than Republican Sen. Ted Stevens.

Yes, that Stevens, the Alaska pork-barrel supremo who champions subsidized logging, oil wells in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and billion-dollar bridges to nowhere.

Conservationists loathe Stevens. Stevens loathes conservationists. The mutual antagonism is as permanent as a mathematical axiom.

Nevertheless, Stevens is sponsoring a bill to raise motor vehicle fuel efficiency standards to 40 miles per gallon by 2017. That’s the kind of legislation that gets you feted by the Sierra Club and burned in effigy in Detroit.

What gives? Stevens has not gone green. He still has oily fish to fry on Alaska’s North Slope. But Stevens is a tough old pol who knows how to read political tea leaves to his advantage. His support for stronger fuel economy standards is a sign that their time has arrived.
Congress is not likely to approve a fuel economy bill as aggressive as Stevens’, but the stars are aligning for improved standards after years of complacency about oil dependence and resistance to any legislation that upsets the auto industry and its unions.

The Senate is debating legislation, pushed by Energy Committee Chairman and New Mexico Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman that would boost fuel economy standards to 35 miles per gallon by 2020. The bill would reduce oil consumption 5.4 percent from today’s level by 2020 and 18 percent by 2030.

Cutting consumption is essential. Even though oil, a portable and highly concentrated form of energy, drives our industrial economy, heavy oil dependence is a strategic liability. Rising demand and accidents of geology mean that an increasing share of oil production will come from the world’s roughest neighborhoods in the years ahead.

High demand makes the oil market more volatile and prone to price swings. High demand also puts upward pressure on prices, which are set in a global market. Consequently, buying oil amounts to writing a check, payable in U.S. dollars, to a rogue’s gallery of petro-regimes that run on palm grease and political extremism.

Even if every oil-producing regime was as well behaved as Sweden, however, oil is one of the main ingredients in the dangerous science experiment that mankind is performing on the Earth’s only atmosphere.

Nearly all of the world’s transportation equipment runs on petroleum fuels. Transportation accounts for 30 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. No plan for cutting those emissions can succeed without lowering oil consumption through a combination of improved fuel efficiency and substitute fuels.

But replacing gasoline in significant quantities will take time. That’s where improved fuel efficiency comes in. Lowering oil consumption will not only help stabilize the oil market, dampen price pressures and cut greenhouse gas emissions. It also will give us the breathing space that we need to resolve cost and issues associated with substitute fuels, such as cellulosic ethanol.

Stevens, however, is looking for leverage to pry open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, which would take an act of Congress. If he thinks that jumping on the fuel economy bandwagon will provide that leverage, Stevens will cheerfully blow off automakers’ tiresome claims that meeting stronger efficiency standards is impossible.

But conservationists, including Republicans for Environmental Protection, will fight Stevens to keep the refuge closed to drilling.

Ecological issues aside, Stevens’ Arctic drilling proposal would do nothing to wean the United States from its dangerous addiction to oil.

But raising fuel economy standards would. If Stevens is instrumental in making that happen, he will deserve the green lobby’s thanks – however grudging.

If Stevens’ political heft can help get a fuel economy bill passed into law, he will have done a big favor for energy security, climate stability and the U.S. economy, even if he’s doing it for the wrong reasons.