TCS Daily

Bitter CAFE

By Brock Yates - March 21, 2002 12:00 AM

Only days ago that it seemed likely that the solons in the Senate would jack up the CAFE standards to a draconian 35 miles per gallon despite the protests of the automobile industry, its labor unions and temperate thinkers everywhere. But after the energy bill amendment was plowed under by a stunning 62-38 vote, the entire dynamic in Washington seems to have been altered.

For openers, the power and reflexive fears about the green movement may have diminished. The CAFE issue was big medicine for the environmentalists, dealing as it did with global warming and the handcuffing of the hatred motor vehicle. Obviously 62 senators, including 19 Democrats, decided that an 11 mpg increase (from the current 24 mpg for cars and light trucks) would seriously damage the domestic industry. Downsizing the overall vehicle mix would also produce disastrous results in terms of the economy and the personal injuries. The greens, who are rising up to dominate the looney left, claimed that Washington legislation could easily alter the vehicular landscape in favor of less air pollution while shattering the citizenry's love affair with their automobiles.

This time they were deluged by a cloud of rubber and exhaust smoke.

Not only did they lose their drive for higher gas mileage, but the Senate exempted pickup trucks from all future CAFE increases, based on the reasoning that small businessmen, farmers, contractors and other commercial interests would suffer most from any future boosts. The Senators expanded tax credits for full cell, electric and hybrid-powered vehicles and added funds for diesel engine and fuel cell research, but overall the voting tilted in favor of reason and against the wild-eyed, car-hating greens.

Also left in the dust were the Presidential hopes of Massachusetts Senator John F. Kerry, who had concentrated much of his pre-campaign posturing on the issue of environmental responsibility and the need to end our so-called dependence on foreign oil. Not only did Kerry lose big on the CAFE issue, but almost immediately after the vote came a series of news stories that placed the entire overblown OPEC threat in focus. The Washington Post, the Financial Times and other major media outlets ran stories trumpeting how Russia is rapidly becoming a wild card in the world petroleum market. With six percent of the known reserves (and with millions of square miles unexplored), the former Soviet Union is poised to shatter OPEC's ever-diminishing share of the market, which is already reduced to about one-third of the world's output.

Kerry and others have become Chicken Littles with their hysterical cries for "energy independence." This may have doomed him to his proper role as a liberal Senator from an ultra-liberal state with no resonance on the Presidential landscape.

Senator John McCain, the Iago of the Republican Party, may have also taken a hit with his co-sponsorship of the CAFE amendment. But McCain is a darling of the liberal media -- a sort of Republican Pet Rock -- and will no doubt remain a major player in Washington. But his alignment with Kerry and the goose-stepping left on this issue will gain him few friends in his party or in his home state of Arizona where folks depend almost exclusively on the private vehicle for transportation.

One wonders too about another media favorite, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, who also voted for the amendment. The pie-faced young Democrat is being touted as a major contender in the 2004 Presidential sweepstakes. But does he face the same fate in his home state that befell Albert Gore in Tennessee? North Carolina is not exactly Marin or Fairfield County. The good ol' boys drive pickups by the thousands and most carry the "number 3" on their backlights in memory of their beloved hero, the late Dale Earnhardt. This is hard-core NASCAR country, the center of the fastest growing sport in the United States. Hulking, over-powered, gas-guzzling, automobiles are icons on the Piedmont Plateau and anyone who messes with them does so at the risk of his political life. Edwards is facile and quick-witted and will probably slip the noose regarding his vote on CAFE, but more cozying up to the greens could cost him dearly.

While the left grouses that the defeat was based on the greed and avarice of the big automakers and the oil barons, it was in fact an act of pure pragmatism. It is obvious that the global oil supply is stable. The spikes to 40-plus-dollars per barrel that happened in the late 70's were temporary and unsustainable. Moreover, no one in the ultra-competitive and over-crowded world of international automobile manufacturing has the vaguest idea of how to mass-produce 35 mpg motor vehicles and still retain the broad spectrum of choice, function and utility available today. Like it or not, that is a fact that will remain a reality for years to come, fuel cells, electrics, windmills, solar panels and other Utopian whimsies from the left notwithstanding.

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