The Daily Green hasn't been a big supporter of Cash for Clunkers program. While it seemed great at first -- a popular cash subsidy that helps taxpayers, carmakers and gets junky highly polluting cars off the road -- in practice it left a lot to be desired.
Originally conceived, the program would have paid out the same subsidy -- up to $4,500 -- to not only those who bought cars with great fuel economy, but also to those who bought used cars with great fuel economy or who traded in a clunker in exchange for public transportation credits. In the end, it was designed to sell new cars, whether or not they were highly efficient -- specifically, new cars that get as little as 22 mpg, new SUVs that get as little as 18 mpg and new trucks that get as little as 15 mpg.
But that's old news. The U.S. people loved the program, exhausting the billion dollar allotment in less than a week. The House felt the yank on its chain and passed a $2 billion extension of the program. Here are two good reasons the Senate should think twice (the vote is expected today):
1. Even an efficient new car taxes the environment.
You know that Toyota commercial in which the car makes itself out of twigs and then disassembles gently, quietly being absorbed back into the Earth? Well, it's a nice dream. In reality, it takes steel, paints, solvents, plastics and a host of other materials to make (that's why car-making employs so many people). There's a point where even an old inefficient car is less energy and resource-intensive than a brand new car, just because the old car is old.
Gwen Ottinger put this best in the Washington Post: "Building a new car, washing machine or refrigerator takes energy and resources: The manufacture of steel, aluminum and plastics are energy-intensive processes, and some of the materials used in durable goods, especially plastics, use nonrenewable fossil fuels as feedstocks as well as energy sources.
Surely some old cars are better off replaced -- whether for environmental or personal reasons. There is some evidence that many cars traded in would have been traded in anyway, with or without the government subsidy.
2. 30% of reusable clunker material is being junked.
By law, the government gives no cash until the clunkers is inoperable. By law, that means pouring sodium silicate -- known as "liquid glass" -- into the engine to render it lifeless. According to Time, that means 30% of the value of a car's parts is lost, along with the energy and resources that went into making them originally. (It's also led to an unexpected boom in sodium silicate chemical manufacturing, according to The Wall Street Journal, at an unspecified environmental cost.)
That's a waste -- even if the provision of the law is there for a reason: to stop the resale of polluting old cars, either here or abroad.
Does all this mean that the Senate should put an end to this popular program? Maybe not. Because the American people seem to be somewhat smarter than their elected representatives: Most are buying fuel-efficient cars, according to federal statistics reported by CNN Money -- exceeding the demands of the law's weak fuel efficiency requirements. The program is resulting in an average fuel economin increase of nearly 10 mpg per car, according to one estimate. Still, only two or at most five (if those new Honda Civics, Toyota Camrys and Ford Escapes are the hybrid versions) of the top 10 vehicles consumers are upgrading to are among the 14 2009 cars that get 30 mpg or better. And the average new vehicle purchased gets just 25.4 mpg -- which is less than the government mandated average fuel economy (27.5 mpg) for the nation's car fleet (and only slightly above the mandated fuel economy of 24 mpg for trucks and SUVs). It's well shy of the recently approved fuel economy standards of 42 mpg for cars and approximately 26 mpg for trucks and SUVs, which are to take effect in 2016.
Maybe the Senate should wise up and learn from the successes and failures of the first Cash for Clunkers program. Before it renews the program, it should ensure that used cars and public transportation qualify for the same credit as new cars, that new cars purchased must meet more ambitious fuel economy standards and that more of the junked clunkers can be recycled and reclaimed. Then, it might be worth another $2 billion. If the program is extended, see how you can magnify your Cash for Clunkers value, for both your wallet and the environment.
Whether or not you're junking a clunker, you can make your driving habits more environmentally friendly. Check out these driving tips, see how you can go farther on a gallon of gas and then join The Daily Green's Carbonrally team, with one (or more) of the challenges at right. From Popular Mechanics: Is the Cash for Clunkers Program Really Raising MPG?
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