The best remedy for the price of gas

Requiring automakers to cut CO2 emissions 6% a year would help clean the air, slash our oil addiction and save motorists billions

There is no magic wand that will bring down the price of gasoline, which has once again crossed the $4 mark in California. But there is a long-term solution that will inoculate us from higher costs in the future.

The Obama administration can’t do much to lower the price of a gallon of gas, but it is on the cusp of a crucial decision that could help consumers come out ahead because they would need less gas.

So begins an op-ed in the L.A. Times by Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign, and James Gerstenzang, the campaign’s editorial director.

Here’s more:

Officials are quietly working on just how steeply to require the auto industry to cut emissions and increase mileage in the next generation of cars, SUVs and pickups. Their decision, coming as early as May, could require dramatically cleaner vehicles that would cut carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 6% a year and average 62 miles per gallon. The new rules would be phased in from 2017 to 2025.

Obviously, using less gas is good for the environment. It means less carbon dioxide pollution and smog. It also boosts our energy security “” a big deal, given the uncertainty of oil supplies from troubled regions and often unsavory players “” and saves us money at the pump. That beats sending our dollars overseas.

The auto industry argues that it is already making clean cars and that having to meet steeper emissions cuts would raise prices. It is lobbying to hold the cut to 3%.

How much is at stake? If we do what the automakers want, U.S. consumers would use 217 million more barrels of oil in 2025 than at 6% “” and send $16 billion more per year to foreign oil producers.

To be sure, there are other proposals being kicked around to provide relief at the pump. But they won’t do much.

Tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to increase the supply of gasoline? That’s a Band-Aid at best. It won’t have any effect on long-term prices or supplies.

Increase domestic oil production by opening up more offshore drilling operations? That won’t work either: Projects would take years to come on stream and would only increase our oil addiction, the heart of the problem. As for the environment, wasn’t it only a year ago that BP’s Gulf of Mexico disaster brought home once again how risky offshore drilling can be?

Rather than drill more oil out of the gulf, we should extract it from Detroit “” through more efficient cars. California’s 2002 Pavley law, the nation’s first regulating greenhouse gas emissions from vehicle tailpipes, was a start in that direction and has set the nation on a course toward lower auto emissions. President Obama built on the law in 2009, unveiling new tailpipe standards under the Clean Air Act that will cut emissions 5% a year by 2016.

But that’s only a piece of what’s needed. Looking ahead to the 2017-25 standards, the administration is weighing the cost of technology needed to achieve a range of emissions reductions against the benefits of reduced energy use, a cleaner environment and, of course, a smaller gasoline bill. Its analysis found the greatest overall savings occurred when emissions are reduced by 6% a year.

A study conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that savings on gasoline would more than make up for the cost of the technology that delivers better mileage and lower emissions, with the break-even point for consumers coming at four years after purchasing a more efficient car. Indeed, investing $3,500 in technology per vehicle would produce $9,700 in gasoline savings over the car’s life, the study found.

This is auto mechanics, not rocket science. Automakers have the ability today to deliver more efficient vehicles by utilizing such existing technologies as high-strength lightweight steel, advanced transmissions and fuel-sipping engines in conventionally powered vehicles. And they can also offer more hybrids and electric vehicles.

Some automakers even acknowledge that they can hit the higher efficiency target. Just listen to Jim Colon, Toyota’s vice president for product communications.

“Toyota will be prepared to meet” whatever standards the administration sets, he said this year at the Washington Auto Show. “If it’s 62 miles a gallon, we’ll be able to achieve that.”

Even GM “” a famous innovation laggard despite its plug-in Chevy Volt “” says that it can join the race.

What automakers need is the prod of stringent standards, not the cushion of another bailout.

Of course, some in Congress and the auto industry are lobbying for weak standards or none at all. They would show us cars with tailfins and whitewalls “” with extra floor mats thrown in “” and cede the market to companies selling high-mileage, low-emission cars. That’s a proven route to bankruptcy.

How often does the president get to solve three problems at once? By cutting emissions 6% annually, he also slashes our oil addiction and saves consumers billions at the pump.

That’s a deal for the history books.

Dan Becker is director of the Safe Climate Campaign, a Washington environmental organization advocating tough measures against global warming. James Gerstenzang, a former Times correspondent, is the campaign’s editorial director.

17 Responses to The best remedy for the price of gas

  1. Don A in Pennsyltucky says:

    Don’t forget speed limits. 55 vs 85?

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    Thanks, Dan. Detroit fought seat belts and smog controls, too.

    I’m starting to wonder if Detroit will survive at all. German and Japanese car producers are way ahead of us in fleet fuel efficiency, and they keep coming up with more innovations. They are also not afraid to fail, as with BMW’s hydrogen powered car.

    Detroit’s solution is to use licensed hybrid technology or to come out with a small battery powered car for $40,000. Not only is the Volt sticker price too high, it got terrible reviews in Consumer Reports for lack of range.

    I hope some of the tiny car companies making those minis you see in cities gain a lot more market share. It’s unlikely to wake up Detroit, which is wedded to two ton cars with big engines, but maybe they can be displaced.

  3. Leif says:

    A “no brainer” in my book. I would even throw in gas rationing with rationing tickets as fair trade with no tax on sales. “Free market,” what a concept, and we all get a shot at playing and profiting.

  4. catman306 says:

    Maybe it’s only during times of stable climate that we can also have minimum earthquake activity?

    Scientists Find Link Between Global Warming and Earthquakes

  5. Dan MB says:

    At the same time MIT is developing advanced batteries: hybrids of lithium and fuel cell, carbon nanotube capacitors that can charge instantly, etc. These are expected to extend the range of vehicles like the Volt to 300 miles and high-tech chassis vehicles to as much as 700. And the batteries are being incorporated in the structure of the vehicle, further reducing weight. Volkswagen has announced a 300 mile range electric vehicle – don’t recall the date but it’s somewhere in the 2015 – 2020 range, worth googling for the details.

    Electric vehicles are on the list of every fleet operator, especially delivery vehicles which can benefit from braking regeneration. CNG is apparently a headache and hybrids don’t have the advantage of simplicity that all electric have.

    The first cell phone cost thousands of dollars and weighed seven pounds. Soon we’ll be managing our household appliances with them, leapfrogging home-based monitors. Technologies that reach a threshold transform with breathtaking speed. Expect big changes in electrics this decade.

  6. llewelly says:

    There is a piece missing from this story. A substantial portion of current gas prices is due to speculation. Efficiency can act to reduce such speculation, but only by a little, as there are many other upward forces on gas prices. Efficiency is important (and really, 6% is less than we should ask for), but anti-speculation regulation is also important too.

    Finally – if cap and trade is to be successful, it also needs a carefully regulated market, free from speculation as well.

  7. Leif says:

    Thanks Catman306 @ 4: Anyone that has heated anything knows that increasing heat tends to expand stuff. (A few exceptions, ice to water is one.) Put a fire in a stove and hear the expansion cracks and snaps. Those are earthquakes on a larger scale. Fractions of a degree sound harmless but on a global scale amount to many feet that needs to be accommodated someplace. Much of early recorded sea level rise is attributed to the warming of the oceans. Clearly the land must be warming as well thus expanding.

    Question for you engineers out there. How much of the 13 feet that Japan moved east could be accounted for by heating the land mass of the eastern hemisphere ~1C. (Recall that many areas recorded record heat last season and far in excess of 1C.)

  8. Hypnos says:

    Current gas prices are not due to speculation. They are due to the fact that Saudi Arabia has been unwilling or unable to make up for the lost Libyan production.

    It’s supply and demand. It’s peak oil.

  9. catman306 says:

    How come my ’89, made in Japan, Corolla gets 40 mpg, 30 if I drive like a madman, handles like a Miata and always has? And everything still works correctly?

    Maybe marketing took over the US auto firms and they started really believing all that hype?

    For better results you must demand higher standards.

    Start demanding and keep on demanding.

  10. A Siegel says:

    It seems to me that the OPED (along with much of the discussion) seriously understates the fiscal value of fuel efficiency standards. If American drivers use 200 million barrels less, per year, of oil (roughly 600,000 barrels/day), what is the impact on oil prices? Isn’t this reduced demand a somewhat moderating influence on oil prices?

    See Understating the Value of New CAFE Standard Targets? for a discussion of this.

    how much would an average 1.4 million barrel/day demand reduction impact oil prices? Could we see $50 barrel/day lower prices? $25? $10? This is a form of predictive analysis that is very difficult to do and basically impossible to do with certainty, but we can be certain that lowered demand will foster lower prices on average.

  11. scas says:

    Best remedy for gas is custom built carbon fiber electric bicyles with integrated Li-X batteries. Give incentives for people to stop driving and start bussing/cycling. Get the junkers off the road, turn them to geoengineering mega-cannons. I built my two electric bicycles from kit, a road bike and a mountain bike – and I beat cars and busses frequently. Top speed 50 kmh range 40+ km. Save the automobile money for a greenhouse.

  12. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Hypnos #8, could it not be speculation, plus Peak Oil, plus the refusal to moderate demand plus geopolitical disruption, (in this case the ever-expanding Western war against China and the other BRICS to a lesser extent) manifest as the attempt to impose ‘regime change’ on Libya, and get its huge hydrocarbon riches firmly back under Western control. I’m not a great fan of single causes being responsible for complex situations. And all these factors act to exacerbate the influence of the others.

  13. gofer says:

    Cat. Converters were put on autos to convert carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons into CO2 and water vapor. That’s the pollution control. So just how are they supposed to reduce CO2?

  14. Ziyu says:

    What do you think of the “microhybrid” trend? These are conventional vehicles that use some hybrid technologies to increase mileage. There’s technology that auto turns off the engine when idling in traffic and immediately turns back on. There’s also Hyundai’s blue drive system, which is a 1.4 kwh lithium polymer battery that increases mileage by about 20-25%. The new Sonata Hybrid gets 38 mpg average (36c/40h).

  15. David B. Benson says:

    Simplest is my solution: no car.

  16. It is worth having a hard look at offset credit trading. Basically, you start with a government set target for the average mpg of new cars. (Based on a standard test.) You then then might award say 10 credits for every percent a new vehicles fuel consumption is below target and require that sellers of new cars with above target fuel consumption purchase 10 credits for every percent fuel consumption is above target.
    In effect it is a system that controls average fuel consumption while imposing a levy on gas guzzlers that is used to subsidize fuel misers. The attractions of using this approach include:
    Doesn’t require fuel price increases to work.
    It reduces the price of fuel efficient cars.
    It does allow some new large cars to be sold. Avoids some of the protests from those who really do need larger cars.
    It is not a de-facto tax. It does not generate government revenue. (Unlike some other forms of ETS and carbon taxes.)
    Offset credit trading is at the core of Australia’s MRET emission trading scheme used to drive investment in renewables. My understanding it is that it also at the core of the emission trading schemes used to drive down suplfur emissions.