Congress’s Goals on CAFE, Biofuels Don’t Go Far Enough

Congress’s Goals on CAFE, Biofuels Don’t Go Far Enough

THE HILL 12/06/07
By Michael Shank

Coinciding with the United Nations climate change conference in Bali this week, Congress remains mired in energy bill deliberations. And it appears that foreign leaders abroad are the more formidable fighters against global warming.

In the article “New groups get in ring as energy bill nears vote” (Dec. 3), the Senate and House leadership readies itself to boast two wins, a revised Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard and increased investments in biofuels. Unfortunately neither gets us significantly closer to our goal of a cooler planet.

To Congress’s credit, CAFE standards, presently at 27.5 miles per gallon for passenger cars and 22.2 mpg for SUVs and light trucks, will be raised for the first time in 30 years. But the adjustment is minimal: 35 mpg by 2020. Compare these numbers with the European Union’s 2008 standard of 44.2 mpg, Japan’s current average vehicle fuel economy of 45 mpg, and China’s levels at the mid-30s and rising.

Americans want more. That is why lower-emission, higher-mileage vehicles such as hybrids are gaining in popularity. That is why Toyota surpassed the U.S. Big Three as the world’s top manufacturer. That is why foreign manufacturers now outsell American makers in the U.S. Stronger CAFE standards will allow Americans to do our wallets and our pride good and make our domestic auto industry more competitive in world markets.

On the other matter, Congress remains convinced that biofuels are the answer. However, according to the National Academy of Sciences, dedicating all 70 million acres of corn to ethanol displaces 12 percent of our gasoline demand; 2.4 percent if we discount for fossil fuel input. Soybeans won’t help much more. The entire 60 million acres of soybeans offsets 6 percent of diesel demand; 2.9 percent if discounted for the fossil fuel input.

Demand for corn ethanol is already putting some farmers out of business or forcing others to forego crop rotation, a move that makes soil more dependent on petroleum-based fertilizers. Moreover, biofuels are neither energy efficient, requiring four-fifths of a gallon of fossil fuels to produce one gallon of ethanol, nor environmentally friendly, requiring 1,700 gallons of water (in production and processing) for every one gallon of ethanol.

There has got to be a better way. A renewable portfolio standard for utilities, which Congress is considering, is a start, a carbon-trading scheme even better, and a carbon tax the best. It is time for Congress to truly start tackling climate change, not evading it.

By Michael Shank, Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University

Arlington, Va