Making History in the Senate

As the media picks up on the remarkable events in the Senate earlier tonight, it's worth putting this vote in context. The fuel economy program was put in place in 1975, in reaction to the oil embargoes that many still remember vividly, because the supply shock led to disruptions, spiraling prices, and long lines at gas stations. Thanks to the new standards for performance for vehicles (not dissimilar from standards we have for appliances and other consumer goods), fuel-efficiency of cars doubled while light truck efficiency jumped by 50%. As of 2000, according to the National Academy of Sciences, the standards effect was still felt, in the form of 2.8-million-barrels-a-day-worth of oil savings.

In other words, this is the most tried and true of our policies for saving oil.

And then the drought hit. The title of a slide from a presentation I gave early last year says it all: "CAFE: Dead in the Senate." The slide contains a list of six votes on increasing fuel economy from 1990 to 2005, scored by the League of Conservation Voters, with every one of them losing badly, with the most recent not even getting 30 votes.

How times have changed. We're sick of oil addiction, sick of emptying our wallets and purses into our gas tanks, and sick of global warming pollution.

Finally, policymakers heard us. And they made history, offering relief to those in search of higher fuel economy after two decades of losing votes. For the auto industry, saying "no" again just didn't cut it tonight in the U.S. Senate. If the House and the White House follow suit -- a big "if," granted -- their engineers will be spurred on to build cleaner, more efficient cars and trucks for us.

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