As political moments go, the present one doesn't suffer for lack of drama or import. So it isn't particularly surprising that yesterday a momentous bit of news slipped by more or less unnoticed, lost in the general hullabaloo over health care and the apparent deterioration of civil discourse sweeping the country.
The recent history of American automobile culture has been increasing profligacy in the face of growing austerity: As the danger of climate change grew clearer every day, and the vanishing nature of the world's oil reserves more apparent, American car manufacturers still built bigger and bigger cars — and we bought them.
So the unveiling on Tuesday of the Obama administration's plan to force the country's automakers to de-guzzle the gargantuan mainstays of their fleets — the Suburbans, the Excursions, the Navigators — was not at all insignificant. Under the plan, which would be enforced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, each automaker's fleet will have to average more than 35 miles per gallon by 2016.
According to the administration, the new standards will increase fuel efficiency by 5 percent annually, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 950 million metric tons, save the average car buyer more than $3,000 in fuel costs and conserve 1.8 billion barrels of oil. "This action will give our auto companies some long-overdue clarity, stability and predictability," President Obama said in a visit to a GM plant in Ohio.
Whether or not the plan ends up meeting all of those projections in full, any serious national effort to increase fuel efficiency and decrease the amount of CO2 spewed out of American tailpipes is a welcome development. Every day a new study is published warning of dire consequences if strong action isn't taken to reign in greenhouse gas emissions. And even if global warming weren't a factor, the world is running out of oil.
Last November, not long after the presidential election, a remarkable report was published by the International Energy Agency. It projected that to compensate for the depletion of existing oilfields, by 2030, the world will need to find new production equivalent to four Saudi Arabias. The IEA added that if demand rises from 85 million barrels per day to 106 million — as it is projected to do — the world will actually need to find six new Saudi Arabias. Both tasks are, needless to say, exceedingly unlikely, making cars that need less gas a necessity, not a choice.
Since last spring, the status of American climate policy has revolved around the cap-and-tradebill currently being considered by the Senate. But for the moment, the new emissions standards, which will likely go into effect in April, represent the most impressive step to reduce fossil fuel emissions in the history of American politics.
"Today's proposed clean-car rule is the biggest single step the U.S. has taken to curb global warming and our oil addiction," said Daniel Becker of the Safe Climate Campaign in a statement released yesterday. "It demonstrates to the world that the United States is now confronting the threat of global warming. It shows that we can use the Clean Air Act and other existing laws to tackle the pollution spewing from vehicles and power plants."