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The Gasoline Crunch

08.25.2005 10:36 | DISPATCHES

From the Center for American Progress.

Yesterday, with gas over $3 a gallon in many areas of the country, the Bush administration unveiled new fuel efficiency standards. The administration proposal squanders an opportunity to reduce demand for fuel - and actually encourages automakers to produce bigger, more fuel inefficient vehicles. Worse, the rules secretly undermine state efforts to do better. California recently approved a plan that "will require a 30 percent cut in carbon dioxide emissions from cars and light trucks by 2016, a target that will most likely be met by big increases in fuel efficiency." The approach is gaining popularity and "George Pataki of New York and other Eastern governors have pledged to emulate it." But buried on page 150 of the regulations is this provision: "[A] state may not impose a legal requirement relating to fuel economy, whether by statute, regulation or otherwise, that conflicts with this rule. A state law that seeks to reduce motor vehicle carbon dioxide emissions is both expressly and impliedly preempted." In other words, the Bush administration has indicated it is determined to undercut California and all other states seeking to improve the administration's feeble proposal. If the administration is successful we will all pay the price.

Fuel efficiency standards work pretty well; the Bush Administration shouldn't be undercutting the states on this. But there's a deeper issue here, too. One way or another, Americans are going to have to get used to higher gas prices. Yes, the volatility in the market will cool off some (I won't be foolish enough to say when) and prices will come down a bit, but a lot of our oil comes from unstable places, and that means it costs a lot to get it to us.

Fuel efficiency can and should be improved. But we need to decrease demand as well--gas prices will fall when the demand for gas falls. That means gas prices will fall when people drive less. Considering the amount of time and money lost to congestion in the United States, less driving probably is a good idea anyway.

The gas tax is due for an increase, and freeways should have peak-hour tolls on them. We should also end the backward policy of mandating free parking with every development. Free parking spaces are a massive subsidy for drivers; few things determine whether someone drives more than the knowledge that they will be able to park freely and easily at their destination.

What shouldn't we do? Make massive investments in rail systems. I like to ride rail as much as the next person - I live near a subway stop in LA and use it whenever I go downtown. But rail doesn't reduce driving, and it is very energy intensive in its own ways (i.e., the electricity needs to come from somewhere, and constructing a rail system often involves an astonishing amount of energy use).

Rail systems provide an alternative to driving for people who don't want to drive, and who are lucky enough to live and work near rail stops. But they don't make people drive less overall. A smart energy policy would make drivers pay the full costs of their trips. We'd see both traffic and the price of gasoline fall if that happened.


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