The Magazine

Anything But Diesel

The government anathematizes the most efficient engines around

Jun 18, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 38 • By DIANE KATZ and HENRY PAYNE
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Still, Europe’s average gas mileage on all its vehicles is much higher than America’s because European diesels are selling in virtually every model segment, from luxurious Audi and Peugeot turbo-charged diesels to the tiny MCC Smart. In the United States, only Volkswagen bothers to offer a diesel-powered passenger vehicle, even though diesel engines move 94 percent of all American freight, 65 percent of farm machinery, and nearly all heavy construction equipment. Gas prices here may well remain too low to trigger demand for more passenger diesels. We won’t know for sure until we remove the regulatory hurdles that effectively prohibit diesel availability.

But rather than eliminate these regulatory roadblocks or tackle the thorny political issue of gas taxes, the Bush administration has chosen to pander to the environmental lobby by subsidizing headline-grabbing alternative fuels that are more expensive than diesel and have even less chance of selling well. Missing from the president’s proposals is any mention of diesel. Instead, the White House is staying mum on fuel efficiency while it "studies" the matter and awaits next month’s National Academy of Sciences report on corporate average fuel economy standards (CAFE). Meanwhile, congressional Democrats are threatening to raise CAFE gas mileage standards for SUVs and other trucks—standards that would be much easier for car manufacturers to meet if they could use diesel engines.

Absent government meddling, consumers practice conservation when they have an economic incentive to do so. Unless the Bush administration and Congress eliminate the regulatory barriers to mass production of diesels, Americans will be limited in their ability to exercise that choice.

Henry Payne is editorial cartoonist for the Detroit News and a freelance writer. Diane Katz is an editorial writer for the News.