Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta proposed imaginative fuel efficiency standards for new SUVs, vans and pickups. This scheme would divide light trucks into a half dozen categories based on size, not weight. By 2011, the smallest so-called "truck" (a PT Cruiser) would have to attain 28.4 mpg, while the largest could get by with 21.3. Add a few inches, and the standards drop. Fatten up to 8,500 pounds, and there are no rules.
A New York Times editorial, "Foolishness on Fuel," began with vital facts, but promptly switched to foolishness, as promised. The facts are that "cars and light trucks -- SUVs, vans and pickups -- account for roughly 40 percent of all United States oil consumption, which now amounts to about 20 million barrels a day. The same vehicles also account for more than one-fifth of the country's emissions of carbon dioxide."
Since 58 percent of the oil we use is imported, while only 40 percent goes into cars, SUVs, vans and pickups, it follows that we would still be importing millions of barrels a day even if there were no passenger cars or trucks. Yet when it came to that other 60 percent of U.S. oil consumption, not to mention the other four-fifths of carbon dioxide, The New York Times had little to say. There was just the ritualistic hand-wringing over "minivans and SUVs, which are held to more lenient fuel economy standards."
When it came to Mineta's new regulations, the editorial rightly noted these "are unlikely to make any serious dent in consumption." They couldn't possibly make a dent because SUVs, pickups and vans only account for half of the vehicles subject to such regulations. And half of 40 percent is just 20 percent of total oil consumption.
"Soaring gasoline prices," says the editorial, "tell us that we need to act quickly to cut down on imported oil," and "there is no better short-term answer than a more efficient transportation fleet." But the world price of oil has nothing to do with how much a country imports -- exporters like Canada face the same price. And new trucks are a tiny fraction of the fleet.
Secretary Mineta said, "The plan will save gas and result in less pain at the pump for motorists." But the surest prediction in economics is that if the price of anything goes down, demand will go up. If Smith's fuel frugality could actually cut the cost of gasoline for Jones, then Jones would drive more. And "Jones" may live in China.