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About 300 people rallied in downtown St. Louis yesterday in support of higher fuel economy standards for automobiles. Among them were US Senator Claire McCaskill, US Congressman Russ Carnahan, and leaders of the UAW. It sounds great – Democratic leaders joining with organized labor to demand more environmentally friendly policies from the big automakers. The catch? They’re teaming up in support of the weaker standard favored in the House – an increase from the current CAFE standard of 27.5 miles per gallon to 32 mpg by 2022, instead of the Senate’s version with an increase to 35 mpg by 2020.

A representative of the auto industry, Barry Felrice of Chrysler, was present. He acknowledged that the auto industry has historically claimed its inability to meet previous standards (both emissions AND safety), only to pull it together in the end. But Felrice asked “What if the auto industry is right this time?”

What if, indeed. Is Felrice holding local autoworker jobs hostage?  “Lower CAFE standards or they get the ax!”

Here’s another “What if?” scenario for Felrice to contemplate. Shocks to the oil supply cause gas prices to skyrocket and long lines to form at gas stations. Americans increasingly turn to fuel efficient foreign cars designed for countries with more expensive gasoline. American automakers are forced to layoff thousands of workers. Guess what? It already happened in the ’70s and ’80s.

Raising CAFE standards isn’t a panacea for global warming and our dependence on foreign oil, but without more fuel efficient automobiles, it’s going to be incredibly difficult. Transportation is 28% of US greenhouse gas emissions. Raising CAFE standards to 40 mpg by 2016 could save the US 4 million barrels of oil a day  – that’s 20% of our current total demand for oil. Combined with other “wedges” that increase our energy efficiency (like increased reliance on renewable energy for our electricity production), suddenly the twin terrors of increasing reliance on foreign oil and global warming become more manageable. It’s a shame that Claire McCaskill and Russ Carnahan are stuck on the wrong side of this issue. It’s even more disappointing that they are pretending to be part of the solution.