Joules From Heaven

Last week, the Obama administration made a few bold moves on energy policy — it revamped the rules governing offshore drilling, and increased the Corporate Average Fuel Economy mandate for future vehicles. At first glance, it seemed a fairly balanced week.

But as with all Obama statements, one must look carefully. While it’s true that all Obama promises come with expiration dates, it’s also true that sometimes what he says at first is the diametric opposite of what he really means.

(A good hint that Obama’s one-two move was not on the up-and-up was that it was praised by the Boston Globe. If they like something that seems politically balanced, then you know there’s a gotcha for the right in there somewhere.)

That energy policy was a classic example of the latter. With one hand, he lifted long-standing bans on oil exploration off large swaths of the United States coastline — in theory, increasing the potential domestic energy generation.

In practice, other provisions in the bill toughened bans on offshore oil drilling in places where we know there’s oil, while only allowing studies on whether or not to allow future exploration — in other words, two major steps before actually allowing drilling.

Meantime, the government has chosen to increase the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards on new vehicles sold in the US to 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016 — up from the current 25 MPG. As the Globe noted, that’s about a 40% increase.

So, how are the car makers going to meet that standards? Since the Obama administration took over two of the three domestic auto makers, one would think that they’d be thinking about that. But they’ve said that they intend to be out of the auto business as soon as possible, so that isn’t really their concern.

There are only a few ways to increase a vehicle’s fuel efficiency. Decrease the size (and consequently power) of the engine, increase the efficiency of the engine (making it do more with less), improve its aerodynamics, or decrease its weight.

Reduce engine power? Americans won’t go for that. We want (channeling Tim Allen) MORE POWER.

Improve aerodynamics? They’re already damned good. The coefficient of drag on new cars is pretty optimal already. There’s not much more we can do without making cars narrower or shorter — and people are trending towards being taller and wider with every generation.

Decrease weight? That’s the likeliest solution. But reduced weight means a host of things that Americans simply don’t want. It means fewer options and features — things like power windows, air conditioning, sun roofs, power seats, navigation systems, and the like all add weight to a car.

Dwarfing the weight of accessories, however, are the big items like the engine, body, and frame. (Or, as has become far more common, the “unibody” combined body and frame.) With those components, there are two ways of reducing weight: use metals lighter and stronger than steel, or less steel. The lighter, stronger metals cost more, so the vehicle will cost more. Using less steel means the car itself is nowhere near as strong — or as safe.

Which means that when your brand-new, exceptionally fuel-efficient car gets T-boned by some escapee from the Cash For Clunkers program, you’re even more likelier to end up in dire need of ObamaCare — or having to be taken from the scene in a Ziploc bag. (Remember, safety features also add weight to a car.)

So the only last option is to make the car engines more efficient. To get them to do more with less.

This is the solution that’s perfectly in tune with the Obama administration’s policies on energy and the economy. Just tell people to do the impossible, and then blame them when they fail. It’s precisely the sort of policies you would expect from an administration stuffed to the gills with people who’ve spent their entire lives living with theories, and damned little contact with reality.

While it’s true that Americans can work miracles, it’s a very dangerous policy to depend on that.

All of this is of no concern to the Obama administration, however. They’re stuck in Eternal Campaign mode, which means they’re focusing on how things will appear in November 2010 and November 2012.

That things will go utterly pear-shaped after those dates is utterly irrelevant to them.

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