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  July/August 2001 Features:
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The Planet

Gas Guzzlers Take Note: Fuel Economy Primed for an Upgrade

By Sarah W. Heim-Jonson

When the current automobile fuel-economy standards were implemented in 1975, the Ford Explorer sport-utility vehicle was barely a twinkle in Ford Motor Company's corporate eye.

In fact, 26 years ago, light trucks, a category that includes SUVs and minivans, were used primarily for hauling and towing, not commuting. Back then, they made up 17 percent of new vehicle sales. Today, they make up almost half. Last year alone, Ford sold almost half a million Explorers in the United States.

Kate Simmons"Cars and light trucks now guzzle nearly 8 million barrels of oil every day," said Kate Simmons of the Club's Global Warming Campaign, "Higher fuel economy could curb global warming and reduce the need to drill for oil. It would also save consumers money at the gas pump."

The CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) standard Congress set for cars in 1975 was 27.5 miles per gallon, which automakers met in the late 1980s - and the standards haven't budged since. Then the Department of Transportation set the standard for light trucks at 20.7 - where it has stagnated for 20 years. (CAFE standards are a fleet average, so fuel economy among different models can vary as long an automaker's fleet as a whole meets or exceeds the standards.)

Today, due to the immense popularity of SUVs and other light trucks, average new vehicle fuel economy is at its lowest point since 1980. Enter the Automobile Fuel Economy Act of 2001 (S.804).

On May 1, Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) introduced S.804, which would raise the fuel-economy standard for light trucks to the same level as cars by 2007. It would require that automakers include in their fleet average huge SUVs, like Ford's Excursion, which are currently excluded. The bill would also require the federal government buy vehicles that are 5 miles per gallon more efficient than the ones purchased in 2000.

In the House, the Club is working with John Olver (D-Mass.) and Wayne Gilchrest (R-Md.), who are writing a letter to President Bush, urging him to work with Congress to raise miles-per-gallon standards for cars and light trucks. At press time, it had 90 signers.

The new CAFE standards would only be a first step toward raising fuel-economy, said Ann Mesnikoff of the Club's global warming team. The Club supports combining cars and light trucks into one fleet category that meets a 40 mpg standard. Once implemented, that standard would conserve more oil than is economically recoverable from the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, off the shore of California and through Persian Gulf imports - combined.

Instead of touting higher fuel-economy standards in his energy plan, President Bush has encouraged "further study" and proposed tax credits for purchasing hybrid vehicles, which have an electric motor and gas engine and achieve as high as 70 mpg.

Because only 16,000 hybrid vehicles were available this year, and only Honda and Toyota manufacture them, tax credits would have little impact, said Simmons. And there are six-month waiting periods for consumers interested in purchasing a hybrid.

And, despite the suggestion that tax credits would encourage more people to buy hybrid vehicles, General Motors, Ford Motor Company and Chrysler announced that the president's proposal would not make them accelerate their development of hybrid vehicles.

"If S.804 becomes law, these new standards for light trucks would save 1 million barrels of oil every day and slash carbon dioxide global warming pollution by 240 million metric tons each year," said Mesnikoff. "It's time for action, not more study."

Take Action: Urge your senators to support S.804 and make SUVs and other light trucks go farther on a gallon of gas so we can cut pollution and save money at the pump.

Clean Air Standards Get Smoked

By Sarah W. Heim-Jonson

Thanks to President Bush's new energy plan, thousands of Americans may not be able to breathe a sigh of relief this summer.

That's because the president's plan opened the door for the Environmental Protection Agency to weaken an important section of the Clean Air Act that requires coal-fired power plants and oil refineries to upgrade pollution controls when facilities are expanded or modified.

The oil and coal industries complain that existing production plants can't be expanded under the Clean Air Act's rules because the requirements are too stringent - and that they are preventing the industry from keeping up with energy demands. Using California's energy crisis as a rationale, the industries claim they could provide more energy if allowed to expand without having to invest in new pollution-limiting technology.

"By suggesting that the Clean Air Act is somehow hampering energy production, the president's energy plan seems to lean toward decreasing enforcement or even modifying clean air rules. That would in turn increase harmful air pollution," said Ed Hopkins, director of the Club's Environmental Quality Committee. "Oil refineries and coal-fired power plants can expand production and be within reasonable pollution limits."

Bush directed the EPA to study the "new source review" section of the Clean Air Act for 90 days. Administrator Christie Todd Whitman should reveal the EPA's findings and recommendations by the end of August.

Take Action: Write your senators and tell them to uphold the Clean Air Act and "new source review" requirements for oil refineries and coal-fired power plants.

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