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Saturday, Sep 01 2012 11:00 PM

The benefits of greater fuel efficiency

By The Bakersfield Californian

Americans traveling this Labor Day weekend are likely to feel the pinch of oil prices that have increased in recent months. Thanks to a refinery explosion in Venezuela, Hurricane Isaac in the Gulf and other world events, gas prices are up 40 cents a gallon. Needless to say, more than a few drivers this weekend will be wishing they had a more fuel-efficient car or truck. In a few years, they won't have to wish anymore thanks to new rules finalized last week by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Building on a Bush-era policy to ramp up fuel efficiency in American vehicles, the Obama administration is requiring new cars and trucks to average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. That means a new car in 2025 will be able to travel twice as far on a gallon of gas as a 2012 model.

That new technology may drive the price of vehicles up by an estimated $2,000, but the cost will be more than recouped by the average $8,000 saved in gas costs over the life of the vehicle. This isn't just good news for consumers but also for what former President George W. Bush termed our "oil addiction." The savings from increased fuel standards would cut U.S. oil consumption by 2 million barrels per day in 2025. To get a sense of how much that is, it's about half the oil the U.S. imports from OPEC each day.

With increased fuel savings also comes benefits for the environment. While greenhouse gas reductions have been highly touted by the Obama administration, there will also be a substantial impact on air quality in the San Joaquin Valley. Less fuel burned equals fewer polluting emissions going into our air. That's critical in a region where so much of our air pollution comes from vehicles traversing the valley.

Considering all those benefits, it's surprising that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has called the new fuel efficiency standards "extreme" and said he would overturn them if elected president. Romney claims the heavy hand of government will raise the price of vehicles for consumers and force difficult-to-achieve regulations on auto companies. That's interesting, since the major automakers all agreed to the standards in advance, in a compromise that Obama negotiated with carmakers that included an agreement to assess progress midway through the process. While carmakers used to aggressively oppose efforts to increase vehicle fuel mileage, new technology breakthroughs have made it easier to reach higher efficiency goals.

Romney has talked a lot lately about his plan to create energy independence through increased oil drilling. He also mentions harnessing renewable energy, though he openly opposes tax credits for the industry. The fact is the United States can't drill its way to independence. Just as our energy portfolio should contain a mix of renewable and nonrenewable energy sources, so should our efforts to reduce dependence on foreign imports include conservation, efficiency and increased supply. In reality, the new fuel standards represent one of the biggest steps taken toward the goal of American energy independence.

Tighter fuel standards should do for the nation the same thing that California's energy conservation efforts have done for the Golden State. Since 1974, the state's per capita power consumption has largely remained flat thanks to increasing investment, regulation and innovation in conservation and efficiency. Meanwhile, power consumption in the U.S. overall jumped 50 percent in that time. Some researchers estimate California families spend $800 a year less on energy than they would have without efficiency improvements over the years.

There is broad consensus in America around reducing fuel imports, especially from volatile regions of the world. The new fuel standards are a reliable way to meet that goal. If Romney has a better plan, we're all waiting to hear what that is.

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