Commentary

McCain’s Failed Planetary Care Package

Who can forget National Health Care, a program that would have made the federal government the overseer of 14 percent of our gross domestic product? Its fatal flaw was that it cost a fortune and people didn’t believe it would improve health care. Many pundits say it resulted in the tumultuous election of 1994, when both houses of Congress changed hands.

Apparently the Senate remembers, because it just stuffed John McCain’s “Fuel Economy and Security Act of 2002.” This was the next biggest thing to the failed health care proposal, inasmuch as it would have stuck the federal nose into at least 10 percent of the country’s business: automobiles, light trucks, and energy. In return it would have produced no measurable change in the planetary environment. That 10 percent can be found in the “Statistical Abstract of the United States.” Surely, if we count in ripple effects and other multipliers, McCain’s bill was right up there with National Health Care.

For some reason, McCain has long had a bee in his bonnet about global warming. When he chaired the Senate Subcommittee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation (he’s now the ranking Minority, thanks to his green friend, Jim Jeffords (R to D-VT)), he was fond of holding hearings on the subject. In a memorable one two years ago, a federal scientist suggested phasing in an energy tax at a penny a month or so, as he said, so people wouldn’t notice it. It’s a suggestion McCain appears to have taken to heart.

Why some of my scientific colleagues think you can fool all of the people all of the time is a mystery, but McCain proposed a “hidden” car tax, guessing that somehow people wouldn’t notice. Here’s how it would have worked.

McCain proposes that fuel economy for all cars, trucks and SUV’s, produced by any automotive company must average 36 miles per gallon by 2016. There’s no full-sized pickup or sport-utility that will achieve this, given the laws of physics and current technology.

Don’t accept the gas-electric hybrid-hype, either. Hybrids save a lot of gas as long as the car is very lightweight. My 1850 lb. Honda Insight has returned 70.2 mpg over 28,000 flawless miles. The average mpg reported by owners of the 2800 lb. Toyota Prius is 45. The jury is still out on Honda’s brand-new Civic hybrid, but don’t expect a lot of ads for what is likely to be a technologically superior automobile: Every one of them will lose money for Honda. The last thing Honda wanted was McCain’s bill.

But when Daimler-Chrysler tried to hybridize its behemoth Durango, all they could get was 15 mpg. In January, Ford quietly dropped its plans to do the same for the Explorer-F150 SUV/truck group because, they said, the hybrid didn’t save as much fuel as they thought it would. The bottom line is that the run-of-the-family SUV will never meet McCain’s standards.

Seeing that an amazing 40 percent of new vehicle sales fall into this class, there’s no way the automakers will meet these fuel efficiency requirements. So McCain’s bill proposes that the automakers be able to buy emissions credits for carbon dioxide reductions “voluntarily” achieved by energy and power producers.

If a power plant switches to, say, natural gas from coal, it will emit about 30 percent less carbon dioxide per unit energy. The reason they don’t do this now is because coal is much less costly, and the increased costs must be passed on to consumers, as encouraged by most state laws, which makes consumers crabby. McCain wanted car producers to be able to “buy” the reduced emissions from power production to compensate for their inability to meet the requirements of his bill.

Guess who would ultimately pay for all of this?

So let’s tote up the costs and benefits of McCain’s failed bill. It would have mucked with 10 percent of the nation’s economy. It would have raised the price of electricity and other energy. It would have raised the price of cars. And, as any competent scientist could have told the senator, the amount of planetary warming that it would prevent will be too small to measure for at least the next 65 years, even if it were adopted worldwide. People would have noticed the cost, but seen no benefit.

It appears that the Democratic-controlled Senate has indeed learned the lesson of the health care debacle.

Patrick J. Michaels is senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute and author of “The Satanic Gases.”