Mark Robert Halper

Nobody changes anything until they have to. The Energy Policy Conservation Act (EPCA) is a case in point. Passed in 1975 in the wake of the OPEC oil embargo, the EPCA addressed a range of energy issues, including passenger-car fuel efficiency. At the time, American-made cars averaged about 18 miles per gallon, and the original goal of the legislation was to double fuel efficiency by 1985. To do that, the law set out penalties for so-called “gas guzzlers,” and established the now-familiar “corporate average fuel efficiency” or CAFE standards, which set mileage targets for each model year beginning with 1978.

Look at the graph (below) of the average fuel efficiency of American-made passenger cars from 1978 to 2003. Take a guess at which year was the last for which the EPCA set a target. If you guessed 1985, you get a free tank of gasohol. What probably tipped you off was the fact that fuel efficiency climbed steadily for eight years when federal law set targets and penalties, then abruptly stopped increasing. With a congressional mandate, the auto industry improved gas mileage almost 53% in eight years. When the mandate expired, it made absolutely no improvement during the next 18 years.

The Pew Charitable Trusts

The Time Is Now

Back in 1975, the carmakers fought the EPCA tooth and nail. They argued that to be more fuel-efficient cars would have to be lighter and, therefore, less safe. They complained that the new standards would raise the cost to the consumer and that the industry would lose thousands of jobs. Ultimately, they said, it would put them out of business.

So they abandoned fuel efficiency as soon as they could in favor of short-term profits from bigger, heavier SUVs. And they helped defeat 1990 legislation that would have mandated increased fuel efficiency over 10 years, just like the 1975 law. Had the law passed, American fuel efficiency in 2000 would have matched that of foreign imports at about 35 mpg.

I raise this issue now because there are several energy bills currently working their way through Congress that, like the EPCA, offer both incentives and penalties, Some are more prescriptive than others, including one that would mandate a national energy code. The bills aren’t perfect, and the robust debate includes resistance from the housing and real estate industries, who have legitimate concerns about the effects on their practitioners. But their arguments are reminiscent of the auto industry’s complaints back in 1975.

The last time a major change was introduced to our national energy policy was in late 1979. Had it been fully implemented and perpetuated, we wouldn’t be in the fix we’re in now.

Change is scary and change is risky. And it won’t happen without a mandate. But not changing our energy policy is scarier and riskier. If you have doubts about that, take another look at the chart.

—Sal Alfano, editorial director, REMODELING.