The time is right in Washington for meaningful progress in the fuel-economy debate.
People are worried about energy shortages and prices. Some are concerned about climate change. Lawmakers, after freezing corporate average fuel economy standards for six years, are open to change. Ford Chairman Bill Ford Jr. and President Bush have acknowledged that global warming is real. And the industry is busy with technology to boost fuel economy.
Surely, with that much agreement, a workable compromise can be reached. That is why a proposal to save fuel, sponsored by some top Republicans in the House of Representatives with help from auto-friendly Democrat John Dingell, is disappointing. Rather than raise CAFE, they propose a requirement that light trucks burn 5 billion fewer gallons of gasoline from 2004 to 2010.
Sounds impressive, right? Not really. Five billion gallons amounts to about two weeks of U.S. consumption of gasoline. Two weeks' worth of gasoline over seven years is no solution; it's a smoke screen.
The best route to a workable compromise is to dispense with the gamesmanship. Dropping the 5 billion-gallon proposal, part of a House energy bill, would be a good start.
The second step? Do away with the two CAFE standards, one for cars and a far lower one for light trucks. The original rationale for a lower standard was that contractors, farmers and others need trucks in their work. That is true. But the reality now is that light trucks are used mainly as family vehicles.
It's time to clear away the fog and cut a deal everyone can live with. CAFE is not ideal. It distorts the free market. But a modest increase in CAFE is technologically feasible. The industry still could expand sales of profitable light trucks freely.
The alternative political strategy - opposing higher CAFE - is risky. If the auto industry is cast as the bad guy in the climate-change debate, politicians could place far more onerous burdens on light trucks than a modest increase in CAFE.