In the early 1970s, when Congress was pushing for fuel-efficiency standards as a response to the oil crisis, scaremongering on this issue fell to auto executives. A Chrysler vice president told Congress in 1974 that, trucks aside, fuel economy could outlaw full-sized sedans and station wagons and that within five years, Detroit would exclusively produce subcompact cars. Pickup trucks would be no more.
For as long as legislators have tried to raise fuel-economy standards, conservatives and car companies have fought against them. But since 2007, when President George W. Bush signed an energy bill that called for an increase in the standards, saving money at the gas pump has been more popular than preserving gas guzzlers. President Barack Obama already has raised fuel-economy standards twice, in 2009, for model years 2011 to 2016, and now for vehicles made the decade after that. Automakers have fallen in with the Obama administration, and the White House deserves credit for corralling them into a deal. Not only did car companies agree to put average fleet-wide fuel economy -- called the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard -- at 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, up from 39 miles per gallon for cars and 30 miles per gallon for trucks in 2016, but Ford and Toyota joined hands and announced this week that the two companies would work together to build, of all things, hybrid trucks.
With car companies in sync with the administration, the duty of defending the American pickup has fallen instead to a handful of congressional Republicans. Although they've been quiet about it since the administration announced the fuel-efficiency deal in August, Republicans have included a provision, sponsored by Representative Steve Austria of Ohio, in the interior and environment appropriations bill that could undermine the agreement. It would defund the fuel-economy regulation process and is just one of dozens of anti-environmental riders attached to funding bills this summer.
The House appropriations committee passed the amendment before Obama announced his deal with automakers, and Bob Keefe, a spokesperson for the National Resources Defense Council, says it looked like a political move more than anything else. Defunding the CAFE standards process has worked before: Republicans used the same tactic to stall work on auto efficiency from 1996 until 2000.
Texas Representative John Carter, who was one of the amendment's key supporters and is campaigning against what he considers overregulation, was particularly concerned about how trucks would fare under new fuel-economy standards. In a press release, he called the defunding provision "a pickup truck-saving amendment" and said he was looking out for consumers' interests: "Washington bureaucrats are so out-of-touch with real life in America they can't conceive of the personal and economic damage they would cause by effectively taking the American pickup off the road for our farmers, ranchers, construction workers, and so many others who rely on them to do their daily jobs," he said in the release. Representative Darrell Issa, who is investigating the White House's fuel-efficiency deal-making, also says he has consumers' best interests at heart. "It appears that the input of American consumers -- who purchase some 11 million new cars in the United States each year -- has not been sought as part of this agreement," he wrote in a letter to the White House counsel's office.
But to the extent that consumers -- even truck owners -- have been asked for their input, they've said that they want fuel efficiency. In the run-up to the CAFE standards increase under President George W. Bush in 2007, a poll conducted by the Pew Environmental Group found that 66 percent of truck owners supported better fuel efficiency. At this point, they might even be willing to pay for it: While in 2007 only about 40 percent of the people polled by Consumer Reports said they'd pay more for a fuel-efficient car, this year 58 percent of respondents said they would. Ford, whose F-series trucks sell better than any other vehicle in America, now offers a turbocharged V6 "EcoBoost" engine that's more efficient than V8 engines but still powerful, and for the past three months, the company has sold more F-series trucks with the EcoBoost engine. It announced Wednesday that in 2012 it would be offering the EcoBoost in the Edge, a crossover vehicle, and the Explorer, an SUV, as well.
Although SUVs might shore up a different part of America's self-image than the pickup, they're essentially the same when it comes to fuel economy. Both types of vehicles are "light trucks," which the Obama administration's deal lets off easy compared to cars. Until 2021, the fuel economy of light trucks only has to increase 3.5 percent each year, while cars will have to improve by 5 percent annually. People also tend to use lighter-weight pickup trucks and SUVs for the same activities: to drive to work, pick up the kids, or run to the grocery store. Heavy-duty pickups, the ones that farmers and construction workers tend to need to do their jobs, will also have to meet fuel-economy standards, but the federal government has an entirely separate program for those vehicles.
Since coming into power, congressional Republicans have gotten riders like the one that would kill the CAFE deal past the House, past the Senate, and into law. There's still a possibility this one could make it further through the process. But President Obama would be hard-pressed to let it pass his desk. He's been traveling around the country, talking up the fuel standards and the savings they'll bring to consumers. (The last vehicle he toured in was a bus, which is regulated under the heavy-truck standards.) But even after the CAFE standards were put in place back in the 1970s, car companies still somehow managed to make large vehicles. In fact, light-trucks sales grew from 20 percent of the U.S. automobile market in 1980 to more than 50 percent in the 2000s. Somehow, the car companies always seem to figure out a way to keep America in pickups.