Mark Brandon is the Managing Partner of First Sustainable (http://www.firstsustainable.com), a registered investment advisory catering to socially responsible investors. In addition to Socially Responsible Investing (SRI), he may opine on social venturing, microfinance, community investing, clean technology commercialization, sustainability public policy, green products, and, on occasion, University of Texas Longhorn sports.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

New EPA Gas Mileage Guidelines - Good or Bad?

The Environmental Protection Agency, in a rare show of backbone, has forced automakers to display fuel efficiency figures on the sticker that are closer to actual reality. Almost all auto buyers have known that these figures are only useful for comparison purposes, so its effect on our oil consumption culture may be a blessing or curse.

Owing to changing driving habits, most vehicles have been overstating fuel efficiency for quite some time. The EPA estimates that most vehicles are overstating by about 8 - 12 percent. The hybrids, darlings of the environmental crowd, have been claiming upwards of 60 mpg while most owners report somewhere in the 40 - 45 mpg range, a 30 percent difference.

The truth-telling exercise is certain to wake people up. Not only is the U.S. lagging its foreign competition in fuel efficiency standards, most of what we publish is bogus. A great number of vehicles -- and no automakers -- now meet our current CAFE standards. If the EPA started to enforce our current standards, that by itself would decrease our gasoline consumption enormously. However, we not only need to get up to snuff with our current standards, we should up the CAFE standards by 20 percent, just to keep pace with China.

It is too early to tell if the new standards will increase the volume of whining from Detroit about the cost in jobs and money to put higher standards in place. The foreign competition has been living with the higher standards, and does not seem to be suffering (though, to be fair, foreign automakers have been fudging their numbers, too).

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