Hitting the gas

To listen to the global-warming deniers, the Obama administration's announcement Tuesday that it plans to restrict greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles will hurt the economy, force consumers to buy cars they don't want and endanger the lives of motorists. The opposite is closer to the truth.

Until the banking crisis overtook the issue, the nation's top economic concern was high gasoline prices. The financial meltdown caused oil prices to plummet, but that will change when the economy recovers. Improving fuel efficiency will dramatically reduce U.S. demand, which accounts for one-quarter of the world's oil demand. That will put far more downward pressure on prices, and do it more quickly, than opening more domestic land to drilling possibly could.

President Barack Obama announced that the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency will work together to improve the average fuel economy of vehicles sold in the United States to 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. This should render moot a separate effort by California and 13 other states to regulate tailpipe emissions and assure a unified national standard for new vehicles. That ultimately will benefit automakers.

The safety argument is based on studies that have shown past regulation of fuel efficiency increased the number of deaths in auto accidents by encouraging smaller and lighter vehicles. That's mainly because people in lighter cars are in greater danger when they're in accidents involving heavier ones; if everybody drove smaller cars, we'd all be safer. Future cars will have more efficient engines, transmissions and tires, none of which will affect size, and they probably will be built from lighter and stronger materials that will enhance safety. These elements will add to a new car's cost — about $1,300 more per vehicle by 2016, according to the Obama administration — but consumers will more than make up the difference in fuel savings.

The crackdown on vehicles comes as Congress is debating a groundbreaking bill to regulate greenhouse gases in nearly every sector of the U.S. economy, and Obama has put lawmakers and industry on notice: If they don't act, the administration is willing to do the job. The EPA is empowered to regulate these gases under the Clean Air Act, and the kind of command-and-control measures it would implement probably would be far more costly to polluters than the cap-and-trade scheme being negotiated in Congress. Cutting a deal that heads off such intervention is in everybody's interest.

— Los Angeles Times

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