Here's a plan to reduce auto emissions

December 19, 1997|By Theodore L. Gaillard Jr.

AS DUST settles from the contentious global warming conference, the cry goes up from both extremes of the environmental lobby: ''Seven percent? You've got to be kidding!''

That the United States has agreed to a 7 percent reduction below 1990 levels for U.S. heat-trapping emissions is seen as insufficient by many wildlife lovers, but as an impossible and economically disruptive goal by some industry groups. Dithering over details will continue, but it's time for immediate action.

After the 1992 Rio conference, the United States passed no significant climate legislation and made scant progress toward a commitment to cut emissions. After five years of such waffling, we cannot afford a Rio replay. If the recent Kyoto agreement is to work, we must take a leadership role by creating a major national plan for cleaning up tailpipe and smokestack emissions.

Of course, our dependence on automobiles is a big contributor to the pollution problem; some 25 percent of our annual output of carbon dioxide (a major cause of global warming) comes from cars.

Furthermore, our increasing supply of motor vehicles forces us to import more oil.

Therefore, let's toughen our laws regarding motor vehicles by instituting a plan that will give economic incentives for U.S.-based automobile manufacturers to produce lighter, more energy-efficient vehicles. Those who want to drive gas guzzlers may do so, but they'll pay a price.

Here's the plan:

Place sport utility vehicles and minivans (now classified as trucks) under the automobile fuel-economy requirements. And by the 2003 model year, require them to meet today's standard for cars of 27.5 miles per gallon.

Require government agencies to purchase fuel-cell vehicles, which use gasoline to help generate electrical power, as soon as they become available. A rise in demand for such vehicles would help bring production costs down, making them more desirable to consumers.

Impose a 1-cent per gallon gas tax through the year 2010. That money would go to U.S. automobile manufacturers to help subsidize the conversion of plants for the production of lighter-weight vehicles.

Make it mandatory for insurance companies to link liability rates to vehicle weight.

Have each new vehicle purchased carry a graduated tax based on vehicle weight. For the next five years, proceeds from that tax would go to U.S. auto manufacturers proportionally by market share. For example, the purchaser of a Chrysler Cirrus, in the ''middleweight'' cars of 3,000 to 3,499 pounds, would pay an extra $75. But the purchaser of a heavyweight vehicle (5,000 pounds or more) like a Ford Expedition, would pay an additional $600.

The 1-cent gas tax would generate about $830 million per year for American auto manufacturers. The additional sales tax would have netted $36.9 million from sales of 1996 Chevy Blazers, and nearly $30 million from sales of 1995 Lincoln Town Cars and $256.8 million for 1996 full-size sports utility vehicles.

A bonanza

More than $1 billion in subsidies would be returned each year to manufacturers during the first five years.

Applying automobile Corporate Average Fuel Economy or CAFE standards to minivans and sports utility vehicles (2 million sold in the United States in 1996) would raise overall new passenger vehicle mileage by 2.6 mpg, saving an average of 46 gallons of gas per new vehicle per year. It would cut overall new vehicle carbon dioxide emissions by 10.4 percent.

National savings: 42.4 million barrels of oil needed to produce that additional gas for the 15.5 million new vehicles predicted for 1998's model year. If crude oil stabilizes at roughly $18 per barrel, that's equivalent to $763 million in imported oil per year -- and almost 8 percent of 1995 petroleum imports from vulnerable Persian Gulf states.

We would see improved manufacturing efficiency and new jobs in energy conservation research and development. We would slow our growing dependence on foreign oil and increase the marketability -- and sales -- of U.S. cars in the international market. The penny-per-gallon gas surcharge would be returned to consumers through lower vehicle fuel consumption.

Passing laws that would put this plan into effect would help re-establish a credible environmental policy for the United States. Will Congress offer something better?

Theodore L. Gaillard Jr. writes about military technology and the environment from Philadelphia.

Pub Date: 12/19/97

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