Archive for April, 2010


CAFE Craziness

   Posted by: Robert    in News

In what one could only wish was an April Fool’s joke, the EPA and NHTSA have released their new standard for Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) on American automobiles.  Based on the new standards, it appears that CAFE now joins the growing list of government names which don’t actually mean what they say.  Forget fuel economy, CAFE is now all about Carbon Dioxide.

To understand exactly what’s going on, it’s worth a brief history lesson in the history of vehicle output regulations.  In the US, vehicle regulations have essentially taken on two basic forms, one dealing with emissions, and the other dealing with efficiency.  Emissions based regulations focus, as the name suggests, on the chemicals being emitted from the vehicle’s tailpipe, and are designed to eliminate atmospheric pollutants which are directly harmful to human health, believed to cause global warming, or both.  Efficiency regulations, by contrast, are designed to reduce the amount of fuel used by vehicles in light of the fact that petroleum is a scarce resource.

The history of CAFE can be tied pretty much directly to the Arab Oil Embargo of the early 1970s.  At the time, fuel was not a particularly scarce resource, and the average motorist had little reason to be overly concerned about the amount of money being spent at the pump.  Auto makers, accordingly, focused on features that consumers were interested in; things like power and luxury.  This, of course, became a problem when the fuel supply shrank rapidly, causing people to become suddenly conscious of how far they could drive on a tank of gas.  In modern politics, fuel efficiency has been linked primarily to concerns over energy independence and the price of gasoline.

The new CAFE standard abandons that history entirely.  By refocusing CAFE on CO2, the EPA has transformed an efficiency regulation into an emissions regulation.  Rather than regulating fuel efficiency directly, the EPA is now regulating the number of grams of CO2 emitted per mile.  To maintain the illusion that CAFE remains about fuel efficiency as opposed to CO2 efficiency, the EPA has put together a chart showing both grams of CO2 per mile and the “equivalent” traditional miles per gallon.

The equivalence between Carbon Dioxide and fuel mileage, however, is based on a set of assumptions about how vehicle manufacturers design their cars and trucks.  In essence, it assumes that a standard vehicle emits a certain number of grams of CO2 per gallon of gasoline.  Unfortunately for consumers who care about fuel economy, there is nothing magical about that number.  Manufacturers could, for instance, install a heavy CO2 scrubber which adds weight to the vehicle, thus reducing its miles per gallon, even as it drives CO2 emissions toward zero.  That approach is, in essence, exactly the approach taken to reducing other pollutants to comply with emissions regulations.

At present, consumers have become reasonably conscious of fuel efficiency and consider the number of miles their vehicle will travel per gallon of gas as a factor in buying a new car or truck.  As such, it’s an open question whether this revision to CAFE will have any effect on fuel efficiency overall.  It is important to be aware, however, that the government will no longer be in the business of driving up fuel efficiency.  They have now set their entire focus on carbon.

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