Parsing Obama’s Remarks on Fuel Standards


In July 2011, President Obama announced yet another federal intervention into the economy: increased fuel-efficiency mandates for vehicles. Although his speech was jocular and peppered with humor, it was also filled with very misleading “facts” about energy markets. In the present piece I’ll address some of the biggest whoppers.

The President Agrees: Rising Oil Prices Are Bad!

Although we won’t have many kind things to say about the speech, at least the president acknowledged what many interventionists refuse to concede: rising oil prices hurt Americans, in particular working families with kids. Here is the president on this presumably obvious point:

Now, for the last few months, gas prices have just been killing folks at the pump.  People are filling up their tank, and they’re watching the cost rise — $50, $60, $70.  For some families, it means driving less.  But a lot of folks don’t have that luxury.  They’ve got to go to work.  They’ve got to pick up the kids.  They’ve got to make deliveries.  So it’s just another added expense when money is already tight.

We’ll be sure to place this quotation in the file, to deploy it the next time someone from the Obama Administration touts the wonders of a carbon tax or cap-and-trade scheme.

Are Tax Hikes the Way to Boost Production?

Although he started strong by acknowledging the importance of lowering fuel prices for Americans, Obama then strayed into trouble when diagnosing the causes of this dire situation:

[T]his is not a new problem.  For decades, we’ve left our economy vulnerable to increases in the price of oil.  And with the demand for oil going up in countries like China and India, the problem is only getting worse.  The demand for oil is inexorably rising far faster than supply.  And that means prices will keep going up unless we do something about our own dependence on oil….

At the same time, it’s also true that there is no quick fix to the problem.  There’s no silver bullet here.  But there are steps we can take now that will help us become more energy independent….

So I’ve laid out an energy strategy that would do that.  In the short term, we need to increase safe and responsible oil production here at home to meet our current energy needs.  And even those who are proponents of shifting away from fossil fuels have to acknowledge that we’re not going to suddenly replace oil throughout the economy.  We’re going to need to produce all the oil we can.

But while we’re at it, we need to get rid of, I think, the $4 billion in subsidies we provide to oil and gas companies every year at a time when they’re earning near-record profits, and put that money toward clean energy research, which would really make a big difference.  (Applause.)

We at IER agree that the federal government shouldn’t be subsidizing oil and natural gas production; it was the first plank in our recommendations to the new Congress early this year. But neither should the government be subsidizing solar, wind, biomass, electric vehicles, or any other energy technology. Also, when it comes to the matter of subsidies, people need to remember that adjusted for the energy output, subsidies to oil and natural gas are dwarfed by those to the politically-favored techniques. According to new data from the Energy Information Administration, solar is being subsidized by over 1200 times more than coal and oil and natural gas electricity production, and wind is being subsidized over 80 times more than the more conventional fossil fuels on a unit of production basis (ie. the amount of energy output per dollar of subsidy).

Yet if we put aside the principled issue of whether the government ought to be picking winners and losers, there is an inconsistency in Obama’s rhetoric. On the one hand, he argues that the supply of oil is having trouble keeping pace with increases in demand, and that the government should do everything it can to encourage domestic oil production. Then he states matter-of-factly that raising the tax bill on U.S.-based energy companies is the right thing to do.

Just because a firm is having a profitable year, doesn’t mean that the laws of economics suddenly stop applying. By effectively raising taxes (through ending the “subsidies” in the tax code etc.) on oil and natural gas companies, President Obama would reduce their incentives to find and develop new deposits to meet the rising demand. By the same token, if the government suddenly imposed a 50% surcharge on the incomes of Hollywood actors, they would make fewer movies per year, even though their after-tax income would still make them “obscenely rich” compared to most Americans. Incentives matter.

Obama: Taking Credit for Something Companies Would Have Done Anyway?

Let’s return to Obama’s speech and specifically the role of fuel economy standards:

And that’s why we’re here today.  This agreement on fuel standards represents the single most important step we’ve ever taken as a nation to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.  Think about that.  (Applause.)

Most of the companies here today were part of an agreement that we reached two years ago to raise the fuel efficiency of their cars over the next five years.  And the vehicles on display here are ones that benefited from that standard….

And today, these outstanding companies are committing to doing a lot more.  The companies here today have endorsed our plan to continue increasing the mileage on their cars and trucks over the next 15 years.  We’ve set an aggressive target, and the companies here are stepping up to the plate.

By 2025, the average fuel economy of their vehicles will nearly double to almost 55 miles per gallon.  (Applause.)  So this is an incredible commitment that they’ve made.  And these are some pretty tough business guys.  They know their stuff.  And they wouldn’t be doing it if they didn’t think that it was ultimately going to be good business and good for America.

Think about what this means.  It means that filling up your car every two weeks instead of filling it up every week.  It will save a typical family more than $8,000 in fuel costs over time.  And consumers in this country as a whole will save almost $2 trillion in fuel costs.  That’s trillion with a T. [Bold added.]

We’ve asked this before and we’ll repeat the question: If a government intervention into the energy markets is supposed to be so good for business…then why does the government have to force the businesses to do it? Obama should simply fax his suggestions to these “pretty tough business guys” and then, once they see the light (that it took government officials to discover), they’ll gladly produce the more fuel-efficient vehicles without government prodding. After all, it’s good for business, right? Why would the government have to force companies to do something that is profitable, especially if they agree with the claim, as the president is here saying?

CAFE Standards Kill

What Obama is ignoring with his claims of saving trillions of dollars is that there are downsides to raising fuel efficiency standards. The automakers aren’t dumb. They know that gasoline is expensive and that, other things equal, a more fuel-efficient car is more desirable to their customers.

Yet other things aren’t equal. Engineers have already plucked the “low hanging fruit” when it comes to vehicle design. In order to make vehicles more fuel efficient, the increase must come with a sacrifice in some other desirable feature, such as size or weight of the vehicle. That is why interfering with the optimal tradeoff—as it would be determined in a free market—will lead to undesirable consequences, such as more traffic fatalities.

Writing for The American Thinker last year, J.R. Dunn summarized the lethal legacy of CAFE standards:

Fuel standards are the longest-lived of an entirely futile array of attempts to address 1970s oil shortages. They first went into effect in the 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act as the Corporate Average Fuel Economy program, better known as CAFE. Under the CAFE standards, domestic and foreign automobile manufacturers had to meet a certain mileage standard in their cars and light trucks. They were allowed a very short time to carry this out before fines were levied, so they met the challenge in the easiest way possible: by designing small engines that used less fuel while lowering the size and weight of new vehicles to preserve performance.

The new regulations did accomplish one thing — they killed drivers and passengers in large numbers. By lightening cars and removing material, auto companies were inadvertently discarding the armor that protected motorists in the event of a crash. Similarly, the compressed new models lacked space for impact forces to attenuate before causing damage and injury. Drivers in lightweight cars were as much as twelve times more likely to die in a crash. It was once said about American autos that they were “built like tanks.” Many of the new models from the late ’70s onward more closely resembled go-carts — and proved to be about as sturdy.

How many deaths have resulted? Depending on which study you choose, the total ranges from 41,600 to 124,800. To that figure we can add between 352,000 and 624,000 people suffering serious injuries, including being crippled for life. In the past thirty years, fuel standards have become one of the major causes of death and misery in the United States — and one almost completely attributable to human stupidity and shortsightedness.


Consumers desire fuel efficiency in their vehicles, but that isn’t their sole criterion—if it were, we’d all be riding bicycles or skateboards to work. The president’s claim that higher fuel efficiency mandates will be good for business is absurd on its face, because if that were true, no mandate would be necessary. In order to comply with the new regulations, automakers will produce vehicles that will be more dangerous. Americans may save money at the pump, but fewer of them will be alive to enjoy the savings.

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