ON Wednesday, the White House proposed to overhaul fuel economy standards for automobiles by making them "size based," with differing requirements for big and small cars. Automakers worry that any revisions will hurt their business; environmentalists oppose the administration's plan, and its earlier proposal for revising mileage standards for light trucks, as not going far enough. But a debate on Corporate Average Fuel Economy, known as CAFE, misses the point; if we are serious about reducing our dependence on imported oil, we need to shift our focus.
Our addiction to oil underlies the greatest threats to our country's stability and prosperity: we pump billions of dollars into fundamentalist "petrolist" regimes in the Middle East and release into the atmosphere carbon from petroleum products, perpetuating global warming and aggravating natural disasters from the Gulf Coast to the Indian Ocean.
The answer to these threats is research and innovation to commercialize new fuel technologies in partnership with America's farmers. Our national leadership must promote a market-based shift away from petroleum-based fuels toward renewable fuels produced in America with American technology.
The CAFE standard does nothing to encourage that change. It requires American automakers to build cars and trucks that meet a minimum standard of average mileage traveled per gallon of gasoline. But the current standard for minimum mileage traveled per gallon of gas consumed is both too low and focused on the wrong challenge.
We need to upgrade to a new CAFE: Carbon Alternative Fuel Equivalent. This new CAFE will measure "petroleum mileage" and give automakers incentives and credits for increasing ethanol consumption as a percentage of fuel use of their vehicles, not least by promoting flex-fuel vehicles, which can run on either gasoline or E85 fuel, a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. This approach promises several significant benefits.
First, it could set America free from its dependence on foreign oil. As Brazil's "energy independence miracle" proves, an aggressive strategy of investing in petroleum substitutes like ethanol can end dependence on imported oil.
Second, switching from gasoline to ethanol produced from perennial energy crops like switch grass can slash our carbon dioxide emissions.
Third, it could build on a comparative advantage of American automakers. American auto manufacturers are churning out hundreds of thousands of flex-fuel vehicles. Their foreign competitors make far fewer. Promoting these vehicles will help our automakers build on their already strong market share.
And fourth, by encouraging the production of ethanol and new renewable fuel technologies, this new CAFE standard could invigorate rural communities in America's heartland and innovation and research centers along its coasts.
This new CAFE would start us on our way to a very different future. And Congress can take an important first step by making it easier for consumers to buy E85 gas. Fewer than 1,000 of the nation's 180,000 retail gas stations offer E85, thanks largely to interference by big oil companies. Congress should take action to prohibit such anticompetitive practices.
So instead of squabbling over a mile a gallon here and a mile a gallon there, let's move to a new CAFE standard that offers Americans a fresh chance to work together to meet some of this country's most pressing challenges.