Aug. 11–Editor’s note: This article is part of a series on environmental regulations. Read another perspective here.
If you want to live in a free country, and not everybody does, it helps to understand that freedom means limits on the power of government.
It doesn’t mean there is no government power to limit our actions and choices. But the trick to maintaining a free country is to find a way to control the power of government, to prevent it from creeping ever closer to doing anything to anybody, any time, without limitation.
Here’s how arbitrary, unchecked power is a silent killer of freedom: A stern look from a government official can be enough to obtain “voluntary” cooperation with any policy, no matter how costly, abusive or unjustified.
It is in that context that the Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards, a federal regulatory scheme dating to 1975, must be reconsidered.
Following the Arab oil embargo in 1973, politicians jumped on the issue of ending the nation’s “dependence on foreign oil.” Experts believed the domestic reserves of oil and gas in the United States had been mostly exhausted.
Those experts turned out to be wrong. Today the U.S. is an oil exporter, but the federal regulation of vehicle mileage is still with us.
Under the 1975 law, all the models in a vehicle manufacturer’s fleet had to average a mileage target set by the government, with a lower standard for light trucks and SUVs. It didn’t work out as planned. There was a decline in vehicle safety as cars became smaller and lighter. Many consumers opted for bigger, more powerful SUVs.
In 2007, Congress passed the Energy Independence and Security Act, a complicated revision of the CAFE standards intended to enforce fuel economy while discouraging the downsizing of vehicles. Then in 2009, the CAFE II standards replaced the averaging of fleet mileage with a requirement for each model based on its size. This new system created credits for exceeding the mileage requirement. Companies that failed to meet their “sales-weighted average fuel economy” targets could avoid the government’s huge fines by purchasing these credits from companies that made vehicles that exceeded their mileage requirements. Electric cars, for example.
In the second quarter of 2017, Tesla made $100 million just from selling credits.
But it turns out that government force is not a very efficient way to power vehicles. Nissan’s Leaf, for example, has a maximum range of 150 miles and takes 35 hours to fully recharge using a household 110V outlet. With a speedier 220V charger, you’ll be on the road again in just 7.5 hours.
Bring a book, and a sandwich.
The cost of these government-forced inefficiencies in the market are passed on to the buyers of all new vehicles.
However, the regulations have been helpful to government officials, who could use them as sticks and offer relief from them as carrots. With domestic production of oil exceeding expectations, a new justification for the CAFE standards was needed to keep the heavy hand of government on the steering wheel.
In December 2009, the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency issued an “endangerment” finding, stating that the greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles negatively affect public health and welfare.
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You won’t find even one scientist who will state that the decline in greenhouse gas emissions attributable to the purchase of higher mileage vehicles in the U.S. will have any impact on the global climate now or in the future.
The impact of the cost is something else. A Heritage Foundation report in 2016 estimated that the CAFE standards had already added $3,800 to the cost of a new vehicle and the Obama administration’s scheduled tightening of the standards would cost consumers an additional $3,400 per car by 2025.
For politicians, it’s all golden. Every legislative debate over toughening the standards or offering credits for favored behavior carries with it the opportunity for fundraising. Lawmakers can also extract “voluntary” concessions from affected businesses, like keeping a particular manufacturing facility open or agreeing to the demands of union leaders in a contract negotiation.
This is a form of unlimited, unaccountable, unchecked government power.
People who enjoy the fruits of that power are raising hysterical objections to the Trump administration’s proposal to “roll back” the CAFE and carbon dioxide emissions standards. But judge the proposal for yourself: the Obama administration’s standards for model year 2020 would be frozen for six years. Instead of the CAFE standard for passenger cars rising to 54.5 miles per gallon in 2025, the standard would stay at about 43 mpg through 2026. States would not be allowed to impose their own, more stringent standards. The administration says this change will save the auto industry, and indirectly, its customers, $250 billion.
Be skeptical of apocalyptic rhetoric and name-calling on all sides. We should always be able to have a rational, informed discussion about what we’re paying for a government policy and what we’re achieving with it.
Scare-mongering and ridicule are a form of censorship employed to shut down debate in a free country.
Susan Shelley is a columnist for the Southern California News Group. Susan@SusanShelley.com. Twitter: @Susan_Shelley.
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