Menus Subscribe Search

Big Step Forward Lost in Shuffle

• September 16, 2009 • 10:38 PM

The U.S. government’s regulatory focus on automobile fuel efficiency and emission reduction is very big news.

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-trade bill 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.”

Sam Kornell

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 1 • 4:00 PM

The Gaps in Federal Law That Are Making It Easy for Lenders to Sue Soldiers

Courts are required to appoint attorneys for service members if they are sued and can’t appear. But the law says little about what those lawyers must do. Some companies have taken advantage.


August 1 • 2:22 PM

Warmer Parenting Makes Antisocial Toddlers More Empathetic

Loving care may be the best antidote to callous behavior in young children.


August 1 • 2:00 PM

The Federal Health Insurance Exchange Remains Surprisingly Active

New federal data, obtained by ProPublica under the Freedom of Information Act, shows nearly one million insurance transactions since mid-April.



August 1 • 6:00 AM

The Idea of Racial Hierarchy Remains Entrenched in Americans’ Psyches

New research finds white faces are most closely associated with positive thoughts and feelings.


August 1 • 4:00 AM

How and Why Does the Social Become Biological?

To get closer to an answer, it’s helpful to look at two things we’ve taught ourselves over time: reading and math.



July 31 • 4:00 PM

Thank You for Your Service: How One Company Sues Soldiers Worldwide

With stores near military bases across the country, the retailer USA Discounters offers easy credit to service members. But when those loans go bad, the company uses the local courts near its Virginia headquarters to file suits by the thousands.


July 31 • 2:00 PM

A New York State of Fracking

Court cases. A governor’s moratorium. Pending health study. A quick guide to the state of fracking in New York.


July 31 • 11:17 AM

How California Could Power Itself Using Nothing but Renewables

We don’t need fossil fuels.


July 31 • 8:00 AM

Should Athletes Train Their Memories?

Sure, but it probably won’t help.


July 31 • 6:00 AM

Universal Basic Income: Something We Can All Agree on?

According to Almaz Zelleke, it’s not a crazy thought.


July 31 • 4:00 AM

Medical Dramas Produce Misinformed, Fatalistic Viewers

New research suggests TV doctor dramas leave viewers with skewed impressions of important health-related topics.


July 30 • 4:00 PM

Still the World’s Top Military Spender

Although declining in real terms, the United States’ military budget remains substantial and a huge drain on our public resources.



July 30 • 2:04 PM

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.


July 30 • 2:00 PM

The (Mostly Awful) Things You Learn After Investigating Unpaid Internships for a Year

Though the intern economy remains opaque, dialogue about the role of interns in the labor force—and protections they deserve—is beginning to take shape.


July 30 • 12:00 PM

Why Coffee Shortages Won’t Change the Price of Your Frappuccino

You’re so loyal to Starbucks—and the company knows it—that your daily serving of caffeine is already marked up beyond the reach of any fluctuations in supply.



July 30 • 10:00 AM

Having Difficult Conversations With Your Children

Why it’s necessary, and how to do it.


July 30 • 8:00 AM

How to Make a Convincing Sci-Fi Movie on a Tight Budget

Coherence is a good movie, and its initial shoot cost about the same amount of money as a used Prius.


July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.


July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.


July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.


July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Warmer Parenting Makes Antisocial Toddlers More Empathetic

Loving care may be the best antidote to callous behavior in young children.

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.