OPED: MPG regs: good, bad — or other?

Roger Twitchell
Volunteer for Citizens’ Climate Lobby of York

I greatly appreciate the two Op-Eds published recently in the York Dispatch on Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations. CAFE has been the standard way to keep MPG (miles per gallon, aka gas mileage) up since the ‘70s. But while today’s engineers work miracles with aerodynamics and engine bay technology, consumers have been buying heavier vehicles that simply push a lot of air around them, endangering engineers’ ability to reach those lofty standards.

I’ve read in Wards Auto newsletters and Charged magazine that consumers generally follow recommendations of salespeople. Pickups and SUVs are far more profitable and are a quicker sell than smaller vehicles (let alone retraining-requiring plug-ins with no profitable oil filter changes etc.), so what do you think salespeople push?

Every time I discuss cars the other person brings up their desire for good MPG.  A hard-core conservative coworker loves his Nissan Versa for its 40+ MPG. A close relative loves the utility of her small (and not aerodynamic) SUV but wishes vehicles could be efficient without looking like an aircraft fuselage. I recommended hybrids and plug-ins and now she’s seriously considering a new Chevy Volt. I love my small, aircraft fuselage-like 2000 Insight (68 mpg at 312,000 mi.), a great and fun commuter car. 

I’ve read that people are starting to regret their low-mpg choices (like my close relative). And it is not reasonable to expect that with each new vehicle one gets the new vehicle gets better mpg than what it’s replacing? Why turn one’s back on more efficient (and often racing-derived) technology that makes for a better, longer-lived and typically safer (and thus easier to insure) vehicle? Charging a plug-in is normally done overnight as one sleeps, and 200+ mile battery-only range is becoming accessible (the already-available Chevy Bolt).

I think the original question itself is wrong. Why just focus on MPG regulation? The Clean Power Plan similarly focuses just on cleaning up electricity generation. That’s what regulations do — focus narrowly. They’re also generally all stick, no carrot, an unfriendly us vs. them approach that does not encourage compliance.

Root cause analysis tells us to drill down to the common core issue, and solve that. What do the CAFE and Clean Power Plan regulations have in common? They both limit carbon-derived pollution, also helping with energy independence (ideally partly via plug-in cars). 

But putting a steadily rising tax/fee on carbon pollution at the source (wellhead, mine etc.) and then returning all the revenue directly to households most efficiently addresses that root problem pair. That way we’re not bickering about regulating away our freedoms while growing government, which is what motivates people to attack science itself. That, of course, solves nothing.

So we have Op-Eds representing opposing views on regulating MPG. What’s really needed is a workable solution based on common ground. With Carbon Fee & Dividend, — or simply a “carbon dividend with a tax in there somewhere” as President Ronald Reagan’s Cabinet members George Shultz and James Baker like to put it when they often push for it — by taxing carbon pollution at the source and then simply refunding everything to households you get the most efficient and fairest solution. 

The bottom two-thirds by income aren’t harmed, and the wealthy take — at most — a 0.2 percent net financial hit, according to professional studies of the microeconomic and long-term macroeconomic effects of the Carbon Fee & Dividend proposal (see citizensclimatelobby.org for more details).  My previous employer, the printing industry, is helped via added household discretionary income, along with the economy on average (it helps raise GDP). It nudges the market away from health-damaging inefficient high carbon pollution intensity products and services without adding rules, encouraging innovation. That will help with widespread asthma (I bet every reader knows at least one asthma sufferer) among many other related health, safety and national security issues.  It lets the market choose technologies.

So forget the too-narrow “does CAFE help or hurt” question, and get to the root issues. Ask “Are inefficiency, carbon pollution and oil imports good?” Of course not — so what to do? Put a steadily rising fee/tax on carbon pollution at the source and return the revenues fully, directly, evenly to households. 

Since a fully-returned tax isn’t a tax, it’s even been approved by Grover Norquist, it would decrease carbon pollution quicker than would the Clean Power Plan. It even accounts for in-product/service embodied carbon pollution, without regulations. It helps shift energy and manufacturing employment overall from inefficient high-pollution approaches and sectors to better, far healthier approaches and sectors just via market forces, without needing subsidies. It helps keep us competitive and safe in the world economy by encouraging innovation, America’s specialty. 

By helping grow GDP, it helps address the national debt. In short, it works.