If SUVs Were An Individual Country

The Biden Administration is set to unveil a new set of fuel-efficiency standards on Friday. Photograph by David Paul Morris / Bloomberg / Getty

Elizabeth Kolbert’s essay offers perspective on how the SUV category has grown as a percentage of the global fleet, and what that has meant for fuel consumption. The point of the essay seems not to demonize owners of SUVs, but to suggest a mechanism to put the category on a level playing field with more fuel efficient vehicles. The humanist in me imagines that most SUV owners would own up, given the chance, and take responsibility for their footprint and pay their fair share:

A Better Idea Than Releasing Oil from the Strategic Reserve

It’s time to do away with the S.U.V. loophole.

On Thursday afternoon, President Joe Biden announced that the federal government would release up to a hundred and eighty million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve over six months. The move, aimed at bringing down gas prices—“Americans are feeling Putin’s gas price hike at the pump,” Biden tweeted—is obviously politically motivated. Looked at in purely partisan terms, it probably makes sense for Democrats facing a tough election year. But, regarded through a wider lens, it’s a policy mistake built on previous policy mistakes. It is those mistakes that the Biden Administration should be trying to fix, but isn’t.

The origins of the problem go all the way back to what might be called the original oil crisis, of 1973. In response to that crisis, Congress passed the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, which established the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. At the same time, it mandated Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or cafe, standards for cars. The goal was to reduce the country’s dependence on foreign oil.

The cafe standards were, from the outset, easy to game. To meet them, a car manufacturer could still sell a lot of inefficient cars, provided that it sold enough more efficient vehicles to meet a certain fleetwide average. (In 1978, the year the standards were introduced, the average vehicle sold was supposed to get at least eighteen miles to the gallon.) A separate, laxer standard was introduced for “light trucks,” essentially pickups that people used for work. No one gave sport-utility vehicles much thought, because they barely existed.

That soon changed. In 1984, Jeep introduced what’s sometimes called the first “mainstream” S.U.V., the Jeep Cherokee XJ. Sales of light trucks, now including Cherokees and their brethren, shot up. By 2004, they made up more than half of new-vehicle sales. Consumers obviously liked S.U.V.s, and automakers made a lot of money off of them. The S.U.V. loophole, as it became known, kept both groups happy. But the more S.U.V.s Americans drove out of the showroom, the more oil the country burned through—and the more carbon dioxide it emitted. (Every gallon of gasoline that’s combusted adds twenty pounds of CO2 to the atmosphere, and this is not counting the carbon produced during the refining process.)…

Read the whole essay here.

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