Will New Fuel Rules for SUVs Cut U.S. Oil Use?

John Roach
for National Geographic News
March 30, 2006
The Bush Administration on Wednesday announced new fuel economy
standards for light trucks that it says will save 10.7 billion gallons
(40.5 billion liters) of fuel over the lifetime of vehicles sold between
2008 and 2011.

For the first time, the standards will apply to some of the largest sport utility vehicles (SUVs) on the road, such as the Hummer H2 and the Ford Explorer.

"Just by including these large sport utility vehicles, we have increased fuel savings by 10 percent, more than 250 million gallons [945 million liters] a year," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta at Wednesday's announcement in Baltimore, Maryland.

(Read National Geographic magazine's "The End of Cheap Oil.")

The new standards aim to raise the average fuel economy of light trucks to 24 miles per gallon (10.2 kilometers per liter) by 2011. This is up from 21.6 miles per gallon (9.2 kilometers per liter) on 2006 models.

The new rules do not apply to passenger cars, which are already required to meet a 27.5-mile-per-gallon (11.7-kilometer-per-liter) average.

Environmental groups and advocates for more efficient vehicles say the changes will do little to wean the U.S. off of foreign oil, a goal outlined by President Bush this January in his State of the Union address.

"This is about the most minuscule thing they could possibly do and claim credit," said Daniel Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.

Not Keeping Up

According to Kammen, the new fuel efficiency standards barely keep up with new fuel-efficient technologies such as hybrid engines, which use a mix of electricity and gasoline to power cars.

Using such technologies with clean-burning ethanol—an alternative fuel derived from agricultural crops and waste—may soon reach efficiencies of at least 100 miles per gallon (42.5 kilometers per liter), he said.

Kammen hoped the new fuel economy standards would spur U.S. automakers to adopt fuel-efficient technologies. But he said the new rules are likely too little too late.

Other manufacturers such as Toyota, which makes the popular Prius hybrid, aim to make hybrid engines at least an option, if not standard, in all their models by 2010.

The government's new fuel economy standards won't fully kick in until 2011, Kammen noted.

"That's why it's such a ho-hum piece of legislation. It could do more to push the fleet [of all U.S. cars and trucks] so much faster," he said.

Joan Claybrook, president of the nonprofit Public Citizen and administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from 1977 to 1981, said the new rules are insufficient given the technology available.

"Currently, technology exists to achieve 40 miles per gallon [17 kilometers per liter] fleetwide for cars and trucks," she said in a statement.

"We can and must do much better."

Pickup Exemption

While the plan will include SUVs weighing 8,500 to 10,000 pounds (3,855 to 4,536 kilograms), it excludes pickup trucks in this weight class.

According to the Sierra Club, an environmental organization, 80 percent of the vehicles in that class are pickup trucks, not SUVs, and will thus be exempt from the new standards.

"Since the administration continues to exclude heavy pickup trucks and is only including a handful of the heaviest gas guzzlers, the oil savings that will result from including these vehicles are minimal," the group said in a statement released Wednesday.

"Using the administration's estimate of oil savings, today's rule will save less than two weeks' worth of oil consumption at current levels over the next four years," the group added.

At Wednesday's announcement, Mineta defended the rules as a step toward the goals of reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil and protecting the environment.

"Saving fuel is as important to our national security and economic vitality as it is to preserving the environment," he said.

"President Bush understands that and is committed to encouraging the kind of measures that will reduce our reliance on foreign oil."

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