LATE LAST MONTH, President Obama announced new automobile fuel-efficiency standards that will require cars to achieve an average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. Vehicle fleets currently average 27 miles per gallon, so the new target would boost fuel efficiency by an unprecedented 100 percent within 14 years. But barring an engineering miracle, that's probably pie in the sky. After all, from 1975, when the first federal mileage rules for new cars were enacted, it took more than 30 years to improve automobile efficiency by just 60 percent. And the easy gains were achieved early on; since 1980, fuel economy has climbed by only about 1 percent a year.
The new mileage requirements, says President Obama, are the "most important step we've ever taken as a nation to reduce our dependence on foreign oil." Which is what presidents always say.
In truth, there is less to the new standards (known as CAFE, for corporate average fuel economy) than meets the eye. Writing for The Hill, John German of the International Council on Clean Transportation, a former Chrysler powertrain engineer, points out that "automakers will be graded on a curve." That means "an automaker that builds mostly larger cars, SUVs, and trucks will have lower mileage goals than a competitor that builds mostly compact and subcompact cars."
A mandate of 54.5 mpg may generate arresting headlines, but down in the fine print, the numbers aren't nearly as striking. "Even if the auto industry manages to meet the new standards," reports The New York Times, "it is unlikely car buyers will see many fuel-economy stickers with such high mileage." Thanks to an array of "credits," discounts, and testing procedures built into the CAFE system, 54.5 mpg will really be more like 40.
The fuzzy mileage numbers, however, aren't nearly as dubious as the endlessly repeated claim that greater fuel efficiency will mean lower fuel consumption, and in turn reduce American dependence on foreign oil.
"This agreement on fuel standards," declared the president at his CAFE press conference, "represents the single most important step we've ever taken as a nation to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Think about that."
It is getting hard to remember a time when US presidents didn't tout "energy independence" -- meaning freedom from imported oil -- as an urgent and achievable American objective.
"Let this be our national goal," said Richard Nixon in his 1974 State of the Union address: "At the end of this decade, in the year 1980, the United States will not be dependent on any other country for the energy we need."
A year later, Gerald Ford foresaw a reduction in oil imports "by 1 million barrels a day by the end of this year" and complete energy independence by 1985.
In 1979, Jimmy Carter blasted America's "intolerable dependence on foreign oil" and swore: "Beginning this moment, this nation will never use more foreign oil than we did in 1977 -- never."
Year in, year out, the quest for energy independence is one presidents never tire of invoking. What Nixon, Ford, and Carter were pushing in the 1970s, Bill Clinton, George Bush, and Barack Obama have continued to push in the 2000s. And while the 2012 presidential candidates are sure to clash on many things, the desirability of reducing oil imports from abroad is not likely to be one of them.
But energy independence is a delusion. Greater efficiency may be a splendid thing -- all other things being equal, who wouldn't rather get more miles to the gallon? -- but far from reducing the nation's demand for oil, it increases it. Thirty-five years of CAFE mandates have not reversed the rising US demand for petroleum. In 1975, highway fuel consumption totaled 109 billion gallons, according to the Federal Highway Administration. The total in 2008: 175 billion gallons.
"Beginning this moment," President Jimmy Carter vowed in 1979, "this nation will never use more foreign oil than we did in 1977 -- never." Since then, US imports of oil have climbed 57 percent.
What is true of automobile transportation is true of the economy generally: Americans use energy far more efficiently than in decades past, and for that reason the more energy they consume. Paradoxical? Not really. "Efficiency fails to curb demand because it lets more people do more, and do it faster," write Peter Huber and Mark Mills in The Bottomless Well , their intriguing 2005 book on energy policy, "and more/more/faster invariably swamps all the efficiency gains." More energy-efficient generally means more affordable -- and the more affordable something becomes, the more of it society tends to use.
Whatever else might be said of the new CAFE rules, they aren't going to reduce our dependence on oil, imported or otherwise. Americans have been using foreign oil for a long time, and we use a lot more of it now than we used to. When Nixon was in the White House, the United States imported 6 million barrels of petroleum per day. The daily average so far this year is 11.4 million barrels. It would be even higher if the economy were stronger.
Someday -- maybe -- motor vehicles really will get 54.5 mpg. But "energy independence?" You should live so long.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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