Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - Tougher fuel economy standards, central to an energy plan proposed by Massachusetts Democratic Senator John Kerry, would mean more deaths on America's highways, according to a spokesman for the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI).
Kerry's ideas about energy policy were unveiled Tuesday in what many are calling his "Replace Oil" speech. Kerry claimed ethanol and other "biofuels" could eliminate America's need for oil, and he called for an increase in the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards.
"The question is: how far and how fast can we go?" Kerry told the Center for National Policy. "My answer is that we should go as far and fast as we can."
Kerry said the U.S. consumes 70 percent of its oil purchases for transportation. That's "far more oil in our cars, SUVs, minivans, and other vehicles" than any other country uses for all of its oil-supplied energy needs combined, he added.
"By far, the most significant step we can take toward reducing our dependence on oil," Kerry said, "is to make our passenger vehicles more efficient."
Kerry, a likely presidential candidate in 2004, said imposing CAFE standards on automakers was the proper response to rising oil prices in the 1970s, and it's the proper response to America's dependence on foreign oil in the year 2002.
"Today, because of CAFE standards, we save three million barrels of oil every day," he stated. "Each year, consumers keep more than $20 billion in their pockets instead of paying for fuel."
Kerry said the experience gained from the imposition of CAFE standards in 1975 proves his plan will work.
"The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) confirmed that we can significantly improve fuel efficiency through better use of technology," Kerry claimed, "without limiting vehicle choice, without harming safety, without harming the industry, and at a cost that will ultimately save consumers money."
But critics say Kerry is mischaracterizing the potential savings from increased energy efficiency. More importantly, said Sam Kazman, general counsel for the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), Kerry is ignoring the negative effects of CAFE.
"The academy's analysis of future CAFE increases was highly tentative, but its finding of deaths from the current program is clear," Kazman argued. "CAFE kills, and that fact cannot be fudged. No matter what new technologies are developed, there will always be a trade-off between fuel economy and safety."
CEI says automakers are forced to sell fewer large cars in order to meet the CAFE restrictions. Since larger cars are more crash-worthy than smaller cars in almost every type of collision, the group says the result of CAFE is more highway deaths.
Karen Kerrigan, founder of the Small Business Survival Committee, agrees.
"When you increase CAFE standards, the size of these vehicles decreases," she noted. "It means major safety problems for the occupants and the drivers of these vehicles."
A March 2001 NAS report entitled "Effectiveness and Impact of Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) Standards" tends to support those claims.
"The down-weighting and down-sizing that occurred in the late 1970s and 1980s, some of which was due to CAFE standards," the report concluded, "probably resulted in an additional 1,300 to 2,600 traffic fatalities in 1993."
CEI won a court case based on their "smaller, lighter vehicles are less safe" premise in 1992. A federal appeals court ruled that the U.S. Department of Transportation had unlawfully ignored the adverse safety effects of the CAFE standards.
But Kerrigan said Kerry is not just overlooking the hazards of increasing CAFE standards. She said he's also ignoring reality.
"It's nice that Senator Kerry says this," she noted. "But when it comes down to it, it's just not technology possible to have the same size vehicles and get the miles-per-gallon standard that he wants through mandates and hikes in CAFE standards."
Kerrigan argues that if automakers had the ability to make the high-performance, high-efficiency vehicles Kerry describes, they would not pass up the "green market" that now exists for such vehicles.
If CAFE standards are driven up, she said, small business would suffer because they would have to buy more of the smaller vehicles resulting in more trips to carry the same amount of products or customers currently transported with larger vehicles.
"Obviously, right now during these uncertain times any type of cost increase is undesirable, if not a killer for many small businesses," Kerrigan warned, "Even if it's in the future, it would drastically harm small businesses."
As previously reported by CNSNews.com, Kerry's "Strategic Energy Initiative" is being widely criticized by conservatives, particularly Kerry's claim that alternative energy sources can "replace oil."
"We should promote the use of new renewable biofuels in addition to the corn-based ethanol we already support," he urged in the speech Tuesday. "Both can replace oil."
"Kerry's full-throated endorsement for ethanol, a product that no economist or environmentalist endorses without a political gun to their heads," said Jerry Taylor, the Cato Institute's director of natural resource studies, "speaks more for his ambitions in the Iowa primaries in 2004 than for the merits of the idea."
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