Catalyst Fall 2014

[THEN AND NOW]

Persistence Pays Off on Fuel Economy

by Aaron Huertas

UCS Clean Vehicles Program Director Michelle Robinson was standing outside the U.S. Senate chamber. It was 2005 and senators were debating whether automakers should make cars go farther on a gallon of gas. The auto industry and its allies, however, were determined to keep fuel economy idling. As the debate continued, Robinson watched as industry lobbyists made bets on how wide a margin of victory they would enjoy. The amendment ultimately failed by a vote of 67 to 28.

Stagnant standards had kept the average car’s fuel economy at about 27 miles per gallon for 20 years. Automakers were using technology improvements to make vehicles larger and more powerful, rather than more efficient. Robinson and her colleagues also had to fight off attempts by automakers and members of Congress to weaken the existing standards. “That was a dark time,” she said. “But we wouldn’t be deterred.” UCS made the case that increasing fuel economy would dramatically reduce oil consumption and global warming emissions while saving consumers billions at the pump.

Ready When the Time Comes

Just two years later, the political landscape had shifted. Gas prices were climbing and dealerships were filling up with unsold SUVs. The military was fighting two wars in the Middle East, and President George W. Bush admitted that, “America is addicted to oil.”

Robinson and her UCS colleagues pushed Congress to take the issue up again. Several senators cited our analysis as they voted, for the first time in more than 30 years, to set higher fuel economy standards. This legislation, along with tighter tailpipe emissions regulations, is expected to increase car fuel economy to the equivalent of more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025. This will lower U.S. oil use by more than 3 million barrels per day by 2030 and prevent 570 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions from being released into our atmosphere in that year—the equivalent annual emissions of more than 140 coal-fired power plants.

Robinson is proud of this accomplishment, but already has her sights set on the next milestone. “Making real progress on fuel efficiency was just the beginning,” she says. “As oil gets dirtier and more expensive to produce, the smarter path is to cut all U.S. oil use in half by 2030.” Our Half the Oil plan provides practical steps to lock in fuel economy gains, produce better fuels, and invest in electric vehicles, smart growth, and public transit. 

Aaron Huertas is science communications officer at UCS. Read more from Aaron on our blog, The Equation.

Big Improvements on the Way

 Fuel economy increasing