Paperless Trail

Where is the Environmental Protection Agency's 2002 Report on Light-Duty
Automotive Technology and Fuel Economy Trends
when we need it most? True, it's not the sexiest of reports, and when it reliably appears each September, it invariably gets lost amid the snowdrifts of paper created by
Washington's daily bound-binding output. But with a war -- which will no doubt have an effect on oil supply -- looming in Iraq, the report should have taken on added significance this year. And the fact that it hasn't appeared at all may be a story in and of itself.

The report -- which looks at the sales figures and calculated fuel efficiencies for current-year model cars -- gives a valuable glimpse of the numbers behind America's gas guzzling. Its message has been the same since the late 1980s: Urban fuel
economy in the U.S. car fleet is declining slowly toward 20 miles per gallon as
our cars become bigger and more powerful. And though fuel efficiency on the highways is slightly
higher, it, too, is declining at a similar rate. The last few years in particular, the report has shown how
hoards of inefficient sport utility vehicles are offsetting any gains in efficiency from the development of
smaller or more high-tech engines.

So it's not material exactly worthy of a Matt Drudge link. But this year's report -- or lack thereof -- could shed light on
an emerging debate over whether SUVs help
terrorists. The story involves possible administration mischief, new advancements in engine technology and Arianna Huffington.

First, the alleged mischief. Nearly four months have passed since last year's
report was supposed to appear. (You can read it here.)
One could chalk the delay up to good old government ineptitude -- if it
weren't for the Bush administration's track record of holding back government
environmental studies that might have unwanted political implications. Last June, after the State Department submitted an EPA study to the United
Nations acknowledging that man-made greenhouse gases are significant
contributors to global warming, President Bush scoffed at what had been "put out by
the bureaucracy." In September, apparently unwilling to test Bush's
patience, the EPA dropped an entire chapter on greenhouse-gas emissions from
its annual report on air quality. And last week, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
reported that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) intervened in April to thwart
an EPA report that would have warned against the use of Zonolite, a type of
insulation that contains asbestos and is found in millions of homes.

So why has the fuel-efficiency report stalled? Depends whom you ask. One source close to the publication of the report
says that a draft was completed six months ago but that the
White House has held up the release -- with comments already received from the
OMB, and the departments of Energy and Transportation currently reviewing the
draft. The source added that the numbers in the report -- which have been kept secret
even from nonpartisan industry-watchers who would describe themselves as
anything but environmentalists -- followed last year's trends, meaning a
fleetwide efficiency of roughly 21.2 mpg in cities. A call to the EPA was returned by an office
assistant offering to mail me the latest information on an administration clean-air program.

Why would the administration be holding up the report? For one, the numbers over
the last few years have shown what we all figure to be true but what the White
House probably doesn't want put out by the media: that automotive technology innovations are
increasingly going into making cars more powerful and luxurious rather than more fuel
efficient. The White House recently announced a plan to gradually raise fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks by a paltry 1.5 mpg by
2007. To be sure, any improvement would translate into billions of gallons of
crude oil saved. But those billions could be saved far sooner if automakers implemented on a widespread scale technology that already exists.

The handful of automotive
specialists and environmentalists who rely on the report's figures are getting
restless. At least one I spoke with was ascribing an ominous motive to the White
House delay. "The administration is about to start a war over oil in Iraq,
and they've got a report they're trying to suppress that says we could cut our
oil dependence by using the better technology that's on newer cars," said
Dan Becker of the Sierra Club. "They're refusing to demand that the car
companies use that better technology. The oil [we would save] is more expensive
than the technology."

Becker might be overplaying his hand by linking a war in Iraq to the no-show report, but
some of the report's basic analyses could cause a minor media headache for the
administration. One of the report's yearly features is a look at the most
efficient cars in each segment of the U.S. fleet on the road -- cars, pickup trucks, SUVs, vans and station wagons -- and the class averages
for each type of vehicle. For SUVs in 2001, for example, the most efficient
model got 27 mpg, but the average for SUVs was a paltry 20.5 mpg.
Clearly, Detroit -- or, depending on how you look at it, the consumers who are choosing these
thirsty beasts -- could do far better.

An even more useful look comes via what's known as a "best-in-class"
analysis. The EPA analyzes how average fuel economy would
improve if, in broad classes of vehicles -- last year they broke all vehicles into two categories, "cars" and "trucks" -- every
vehicle in the United States were as fuel efficient as the most efficient models already on
the road. For instance, the last report showed that if all drivers of 2001-model trucks drove vehicles
as efficient as the four most efficient trucks, our truck fleet's fuel economy
would increase by a whole mile per gallon. Considering that trucks -- including
SUVs -- make up half the vehicles on the road, that's plenty of black gold saved.

But what about those four most fuel-efficient trucks from 2001? Aren't they wimpy light trucks, perhaps those half-pint SUVs such as the Toyota Rav4? Actually, according to the last report, those four models go, on average, from 0 to 60 mph in 10.6 seconds and achieve a top speed of 131
mph -- the same average performance as all of our trucks. That's important
because it shows that people don't need to drive a Yugo to save billions of
gallons of oil. If cars in each class were simply made to be more fuel
efficient on average -- either because consumers or the government demanded
it -- lots and lots of oil could be saved. And we could do it tomorrow,
without having to wait until the government clamps down with its mandate
by 2007.

The report's release could be especially helpful right about now. Arianna
Huffington has launched a new ad campaign against SUVs, arguing that buying
the big gas guzzlers helps terrorists.
To what extent buying Middle Eastern oil helps terrorists is not a settled
question, and neither is the one of whether SUVs are the culprit. Sen.
John Kerry (D-Mass.), for instance, backed by some environmentalists, has argued that rather than ditching SUVs completely, we should use existing technologies to make them more fuel efficient. No doubt the 2002 report,
now nearly four months overdue, would help inform the debate. But only if the Bush administration allows it to be published.

Eli Kintisch is a writer living in Washington, D.C.