Report

Fueling Victory (Spring 2008 Trust Magazine article)

  • April 30, 2008
  • By Colin Woodard

The Pew Campaign for Fuel Efficiency's successful drive helped raise fuel economy standards for the first time in more than three decades.

When it comes to petroleum, the United States is in a bind.

The substance accounts for 40 percent of the nation's energy supply—and powers 97 percent of its transportation—yet only 3 percent of world reserves are within its borders, and the country is vulnerable to anything that might disturb the flow from elsewhere. Seventy percent of U.S. oil consumption goes to the transportation sector, where it is consumed less efficiently than peer nations: Average automotive fuel economy is 35 percent lower than in the European Union and 48 percent below Japan's, with menacing effects to both climate and the environment.

The United States is a nation that, in President George W. Bush's words, “is addicted to oil.”

But last December, the nation took an important step in treating that addiction when Congress passed an energy bill, which Bush promptly signed, that raises automobile fuel efficiency standards to 35 miles per gallon by 2020.

The measure, the first congressionally mandated increase in federal fuel economy standards in 32 years, is a boon for the economy, security and the environment. By 2020 it will save an estimated 1.1 million barrels of oil a day, $23 billion in annual consumer fuel costs and 190 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year, or as much as forty coal plants.

“This is a historic move that will decrease our dangerous dependency on foreign oil, save consumers who are paying too much for a gallon of gas, and put us on the road to significant greenhouse gas savings,” says Phyllis Cuttino, director of the Pew Campaign for Fuel Efficiency, a multimillion- dollar-investment by the Trusts to promote the measure's passage. “Last spring, few would have thought this could have been achieved.”

Indeed, when the campaign got under way in April 2007, it was conceived as a nearly two-year project, and even within that time frame, success was far from certain. A coalition of environmental groups had been working for decades to increase fuel standards but had been defeated by powerful opponents in the automotive and petroleum industries. The last fuel economy bill to reach a floor vote in the Senate, in 2005, received just 28 votes, fewer than half the 60 needed to guarantee passage.

But there were also indications that the policy environment was shifting. Oil prices were approaching $100 a barrel, while public opinion increasingly favored taking action to confront global warming. “We had high gas prices, high oil prices, a growing understanding of climate change and turmoil in the Middle East, Africa and South America,” recalls David Friedman, research director of the Clean Vehicles Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, which had been working on the issue since the 1990s. “People were waking up to the cost of our oil addiction.”

As a result, new voices were joining the chorus calling for improved fuel economy: corporate CEOs, retired senior military officers, religious leaders and consumer advocates. “We collectively saw a window of opportunity,” says Kevin Curtis, who was then at the National Environmental Trust, which merged into the Pew Environment Group in January. “A targeted campaign with investments in various partner organizations could help it get across the goal line.”

Fuel economy standards had remained essentially unchanged since the oil shock in 1975. Over resistance from automakers, Congress passed a law requiring passenger-vehicle efficiency to double to 27.5 miles over ten years. Ford predicted the new standards could result in “a product line consisting . . . of all sub-Pinto-sized vehicles,” while Chrysler warned that most full-sized sedans and station wagons would be effectively outlawed.

Of course, that's not what happened. More efficient cars were made without sacrificing safety, performance or large-vehicle types. Pickups, vans and other light trucks, which were held to a lower standard, also saw a near doubling of vehicle mileage by 1985. But gas prices had fallen as well, reducing public pressure to raise standards. Carmakers continued to innovate but channeled engineering gains into increasing performance rather than mileage.

There were frequent attempts to raise the standards further, but each was stymied. In the mid-1980s, the Reagan administration actually lowered standards to 26 mpg for cars and 20 mpg for light trucks, and a 1990 effort to raise standards by 40 percent by 2000 was defeated by a Senate filibuster. Congress prevented the Clinton administration from raising light-truck standards by passing a rider in 1995 that effectively took away its authority to do so. With the rise of sport utility vehicles, fleet- wide-average fuel efficiency dropped through the 1990s. The Bush administration raised efficiency to 27.5 for cars and 22.2 for light trucks.

In the absence of federal action, progress of a sort was occurring at the state level. Under the Clean Air Act, California, which had enacted pollution-control measures for automobiles as far back as 1960, retained the authority to set stiffer emissions standards, subject to approval by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Catalytic converters, vapor-blocking gas caps and low-sulfur diesel were fostered by California over the years, innovations that influenced federal emissions standards by dint of the state's status as the country's largest carmarket. After 1990, the EPA granted other states the right to adopt California's standards if they so wished; New York and Massachusetts did so, and others indicated an interest.

“It's been a ratcheting effect: California adopts a more stringent standard, it's adopted by other states, and then the federal government ends up following it,” notes Jason Mark of the Energy Foundation in San Francisco. “In terms of air pollution, California pulls the country up by its bootstraps.”

Until recently, these emissions rules had a negligible effect on fuel economy. “Some emissions technologies improved it and others reduced it, so the overall effect has been negligible,” Mark notes. “But the new standards are different.”

California's latest standard, adopted in 2004, aims to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a goal likely to be achieved through improved fuel economy. The standard—which enforces the equivalent of a fleet-wide average of 35 miles per gallon by 2016—was immediately challenged by the Bush administration, which argued that carbon dioxide was not a pollutant and therefore cannot be regulated by the EPA or the state.

But the California rules were upheld in a series of court challenges, including an April 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision, removing a major roadblock to the 13 states that wished to adopt them. The Energy Foundation supported public education and statespecific research on the benefits of the California standards and then helped fight off automakers' suits to block their implementation.

Meanwhile, ever-higher oil and gasoline prices were vividly illustrating the costs of petroleum dependency— and enlisting powerful new voices to the cause. Seventeen retired senior military officers and corporate CEOs joined the fight under the aegis of the Energy Security Leadership Council; they included Federal Express chairman and CEO Frederick W. Smith, retired Marine Corps General P.X. Kelley, David P. Steiner, CEO of Waste Management Inc., Southwest Airlines executive chairman Herbert D. Kelleher and retired Admiral Vern Clark, former chief of naval operations.

“The military leaders saw a situation where our military was more and more being put in the posture of having to secure the supply of oil not just for the United States but also for the world,” says Robbie Diamond, founder of Securing America's Future Energy, the Washington-based nonprofit which convened the council. “Then you had a group of companies with huge vehicle fleets who wanted to signal that they were willing to take the lead on this, even if they had to incur some costs to make it happen.”

He continues, saying: “These people who joined the council didn't do it based on their companies' immediate interests. They were really coming from a very pure place, from real concerns about what they saw ahead for their children and grandchildren and the United States.”

Their report, issued in December 2006, urged the government to reform and strengthen fuel efficiency standards by 4 percent annually, among other measures. “America's oil dependence threatens the security of the nation,” Kelly and Smith wrote in the introductory letter. “The time for action arrived long ago. We must not wait another moment.”

The Consumer Federation of America, worried about prices at the gas pump, began calling for Congress to pass a 50-mpg standard by 2030, arguing that at $3 a gallon, the net cost to the consumer would be zero. Evangelical leaders in the Christian Environmental Council had already adopted a resolution calling for at least 65 mpg by 2020 to help head off human suffering in poor nations due to global warming. Even Nissan, an automaker whose fleet was not particularly fuel-efficient, broke with its competitors to support raising standards, and was instrumental in securing the support of senators from states where the Japanese carmaker had plants.

“We had the perfect storm of influences,” says Cuttino of the Pew Campaign for Fuel Efficiency. “We were lucky with timing of the external issues that came up, and we seized the opportunity.”

The campaign aimed to get Congress to pass higher standards through the advocacy equivalent of a full-court press: coordinating a coalition of interest groups and stakeholders to simultaneously build support nationally and in the states, backed by targeted advertising, independent research findings and high-quality polling data.

“As the community who had been working on this had become more and more successful, there was more and more to do, to the point where it was extremely hard for us to keep on top of it,” says Friedman of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “To build the necessary coalition, to get the information out there and to educate the public on an issue as large as this takes a lot of people.”

For the Trusts, it was also a test of a new, campaign-based approach to affecting policy change. As the Campaign for Fuel Efficiency got under way, the Trusts announced that the National Environmental Trust, a longtime partner with an experienced staff of campaign professionals, would be merging with the Pew Environment Group (see Deep Green). The consolidated team could direct large advocacy campaigns like that for fuel economy more quickly and nimbly.

“The idea is to bring the campaign management responsibility in-house and, where appropriate, make investments in all sort of organizations to help you get across the goal line,” says Curtis, the group's director of campaign operations. “The Campaign for Fuel Efficiency was a wonderful dry run of what the new entity could do.” Winning would boil down to convincing uncommitted senators and representatives representatives to support new standards. To that end, the campaign hired two leading pollsters—Democrat Mark Mellman, president of the Mellman Group, and Republican Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies—to gauge attitudes in 30 congressional districts, including that of Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the auto industry's fiercest champion.

The pollsters found overwhelming support for a 35-mpg standard, even when presented with critics' arguments. The surveys, which spanned nine states, showed three-quarters of respondents supported the higher standards after hearing both sides of the argument. “I was a bit surprised, as I presumed the results would be closer,” says McInturff. “Even in the core of Michigan, arguments for higher standards did strikingly well.”

The Big Three automakers employed time-tested arguments against fuel economy. Their lobbying group, the American Association of Automobile Manufacturers, ran radio ads suggesting that soccer moms wouldn't be able to buy SUVs, perhaps compromising their family's safety. Jobs and profits would be at stake, automakers and the United AutoWorkers had long suggested, and pickups would become harder to find.

Pollsters were able to demonstrate to lawmakers that the public was not buying the claims. “One thing that was different this time around is we anticipated the opponent's arguments,” says Mellman. “This time, we talked to pickup owners and found they wanted even higher fuel standards than others.”

Even in automobile-producing states, 60 to 70 percent of survey participants disagreed that vehicles would become small and unsafe, that autoworkers would lose their jobs or that the U.S. economy would be harmed. Seventy-four percent of those polled in the Detroit area said the measures would be good for Detroit, encouraging innovation.

That's a conclusion backed up by research. A July 2007 study by the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute found that higher standards would boost automakers' profits and any additional costs to consumers would be more than offset by savings in fuel costs.

“Automakers have been saying many of the same things since standards came in the 1970s, and they made profits after that,” says the study's author, Walter S. McManus, Ph.D., director of the university's automotiveanalysis division. “All of these massive losses they have had in the last three years had nothing to do with fuel economy standards, and in fact they would have been better off if they had had a more fuel-efficient fleet.”

McInturff's polling firm also tested potential arguments and advertising messages—and those being put forth by the auto industry—using focus groups to determine the most effective content. “Our work said that this issue should be framed around energy independence and national security,” he says. “I understand the environmental argument, but there were tons of research that said: If you want to build a broader coalition, these were the arguments that were most compelling to do that.”

The campaign ran an advertising series in national newspapers and key radio stations. “Security,” an ad in The New York Times began: “Better gas mileage doesn't just save money. It protects America.”

“With spending at the pump up to $80 a month, Americans need better gas mileage now,” stated a Roll Call ad placed shortly before the Senate was to vote on the measure in June 2007. Through the campaign's efforts, 85 editorials ran in the three weeks prior to the vote, which passed 65-27, shifting the battle to the House.

The campaign—and spiking oil prices—kept the pressure on Congress. The first House version of the energy bill, passed in August, did not include fuel economy because of Detroit's opposition, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) vowed it would be restored in the final bill to be negotiated with the Senate.

As negotiations continued in the fall, the campaign's pollsters provided lawmakers with another reason to support the bill: a chance to boost Congress's 30-percent approval rating. Mellman's nationwide voter survey showed that respondents from both parties felt Congress had accomplished little and that passing fuel economy standards would be the strongest antidote available to rectify this perception. Of 20 issues, voters regarded fuel efficiency as the second most important for Congress to tackle, after Social Security.

“The Democrats were worried that, from a political point of view, they would end up owning a failed Congress, and they were desperate to avoid that,” Mellman says. “When fuel economy emerged as the most compelling example of something they could do to improve their image, it was a powerful piece of information.”

When the dust finally settled in December, the House passed the energy bill containing the measure by 314-100.

“It's a landmark victory,” says Cuttino, whose staff had held daily huddles and weekly strategy meetings to coordinate the effort. “We ran this like any other very serious national campaign, keeping up a constant stream of information to put pressure on the votes on the Hill.”

While a great victory, fuel-economy proponents note that more work lies ahead, both to ensure that the new rules are implemented properly and to support California's efforts to implement an even tighter standard. The day after President Bush signed the energy bill into law, the EPA announced it would not be issuing the necessary permission to California— the first time the agency had ever declined to do so. “We could get 50 percent more reduction in greenhouse gas emissions with the California standards,” the Energy Foundation's Jason Mark observes.

“We have to keep fighting this fight to make sure that people don't insert provisions into new bills that undermine what has been accomplished,” adds David Friedman at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “But it's a very nice beginning.”

That is the stance of the Pew Campaign for Fuel Efficiency. In a statement issued in December, the initiative pointed out the savings that the law will create in barrels of oil and dollars at the pump. “It makes the auto industry the first major sector of the American economy that will reduce its global warming pollution— by the equivalent of taking 28 million cars off the road. There's nothing underwhelming about that.”

And it pointed toward the future: “Americans demanded action on energy security and global warming, and Congress responded. This new fuel efficiency standard shows how powerful these issues have become— and they're not going away.”

For information on the recent history of fuel efficiency, plus links to consumer and auto-industry benefits, go to the Web site of Pew's Campaign for Fuel Efficiency, at www.pewfuelefficiency.org.

Colin Woodard is an award-winning journalist and the author of The Republic of Pirates, The Lobster Coast, and Ocean's End: Travels Through Endangered Seas. He lives in Portland, Maine and has a Web site at www.colinwoodard.com.

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Pew is no longer active in this line of work, but for more information, visit the Pew Campaign for Fuel Efficiency campaign.