Will Obama Take US to 60 MPG?

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President Obama announced on Thursday that the administration is releasing 30 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the 727-million-barrel stockpile of crude that the US government keeps on hand in case of an emergency. It’s an option that comes up every summer when gas prices start climbing, but this marks the first time since Hurricane Katrina that we’ve tapped the emergency reserve. The announcement generated a bunch of criticism from Republicans and renewed calls of “drill, baby, drill.”

There are a few interesting things here. First, I can’t say that I disagree entirely with the accusation that Obama’s motivations were political. Everyone loves lower gas prices, and a week before a long holiday weekend is pretty interesting timing. But since gas prices have been trending downward of late, the move probably says more about broader economic concerns than anything else, as others have noted. In either case, it’s only a short-term fix.

Perhaps a better long-term solution would be improving the fuel efficiency of vehicles, so people don’t have to buy as much gas. More oil, either from the SPR or increased drilling, doesn’t help a whole lot. The Obama administration is at work on the next round of fuel economy standards, set to be released in September, for model years 2016 and beyond. The last standards increase required auto dealers to hit a fleet-wide average for light vehicles (like passenger cars) of 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016, up from the previous average of 27.5 miles per gallon. Enviros have been lobbying the administration to set a goal of getting to 60 miles per gallon in the next 15 years—which they argue is entirely possible and would do far more than any short-term fix.

“Whether or not this band-aid stems any economic hemorrhaging due to our costly oil addiction,” said Deron Lovaas, federal transportation policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, following the SPR announcement, “the President can and should provide real, lasting relief by boosting the fuel-efficiency of our car and truck fleet to 60 miles-per-gallon by 2025.”

The enviros got support this week from a group of Republican former EPA heads and lawmakers, who wrote to Obama requesting the very same target. But will automakers, abide willingly? A spokesperson for Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers dismissed the letter as “a special interest campaign to achieve a politically motivated fuel economy number.” I guess that would be a “no.”

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