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Getting more out of each gallon of gasoline
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It's commonplace to observe that we live in very partisan times. Red versus blue factions dominate our public discussions, and there often seems very little room made for agreement in the middle.
It's surely not easy to get environmental groups to agree on a policy that industry endorses. And if you add organized labor, consumer groups and the state of California to the mix, you might think agreement on one particular course of action would be impossible.
But the impossible has now happened. All the groups just mentioned have endorsed a new plan to make our vehicles significantly more fuel-efficient over time. The Obama administration recently announced that by model year 2025 cars and light-duty trucks should get the equivalent of 54.5 mpg. That's a goal further down the road than what we already had, which was getting the fleet of new cars to 34.5 mpg by 2016.
The overall efficiency of the American car fleet in recent years has been rising. That's true in part because "regular" cars are getting more efficient, and because hybrid and electric vehicles help raise the miles per gallon figures for the fleet.
There definitely are costs associated with the new standard. Auto dealers warned that making the changes required to achieve the new fuel efficiency goals will cost about $3,000 per vehicle. That figure, of course, could mean some families can't afford a new car.
But at the same time, some of the economics of the new standards are positive for consumers. Cars and light trucks that are more miserly with gasoline require less money to run each week. Estimates are that American consumers as a group will spend $1.7 trillion less at the gas pump because of efficiency changes to the fleet.
As a geologist, the thing that most impresses me when discussions of fuel comes up is where we get the petroleum from which we make gasoline and diesel. No matter how you slice it, if we can use less petroleum our dependence on foreign oil could decline. Wherever you stand on the political spectrum, a decreasing dependence on oil from unstable parts of the world is a good thing.
While it's impressive that an agreement relating to many different groups has been successfully forged, not everyone is pleased by what's been accomplished. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney opposes the new standards. According to the Washington Post, he has pledged to overturn them if elected.
In a speech last February, Romney again stated his opposition to increasingly stringent regulations. Among other points, he said such rules "hurt domestic automakers and provided a benefit to some of the foreign automakers."
Beyond that, there's a deeper philosophical divide between Romney and some others in the public square. The Republican presidential candidate doesn't want the EPA involved in efforts "to manage carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles and trucks." That issue relates to climate change and carbon policies, a very big sticky wicket.
Stay tuned.

- Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. Questions for future Rock Docs can be sent to This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.