January 27, 2009 at 1:00 am

Editorial: Hiking fuel rules won't get America working

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Courage and common sense were invoked by President Barack Obama Monday as he signed orders that will push fuel economy standards well ahead of affordable technology and create a crazy quilt of regulations for making vehicles. But the new president showed neither quality.

Obama has set the wrong priority. His main job should be to get America working again.

Common sense would suggest that automakers submerged in red ink won't be able to pony up the estimated tens of billions of dollars the latest government mandates will require in research and development costs. And that allowing individual states to supersede federal tailpipe emission standards will make a joke of interstate commerce.

And yet Obama went ahead with orders to the Environmental Protection Agency to review whether California and other states should be allowed to set their own emissions standards. The EPA is expected to quickly grant the states that power, something the Bush administration opposed.

That will place the automakers at the mercy of the most environmentally goofy states -- such as California and Vermont -- and subject them to regulations that vary across the country. For example, California's standard would translate to 44 miles per gallon in 2020 compared with the federal standard of 35 mpg.

Meeting the whims of California's regulators will cost Detroit's Big Three more than $100 billion, according to David Cole of the Center for Automotive Research, money they don't now have and aren't likely to get, unless the federal government intends to write more checks.

The early operating philosophy of the Obama administration is that if former President George W. Bush did it, it must be undone.

Obama also ordered the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to set higher fuel efficiency standards for 2011 by March 31, and indicated that the standards for the years to follow would be progressively tougher.

Automakers are faced with reinventing themselves on an extremely short timetable and in a way that no one is sure that consumers will embrace. That doesn't make any kind of sense.

As for courage, Obama passed on the opportunity to do something truly courageous, such as raising the gasoline tax to discourage consumption. Federal fuel economy mandates have failed to reduce the demand for gasoline. But last summer's $4-a-gallon pump prices worked wonders in curbing the national appetite and cutting the miles driven.

A higher gasoline tax would accomplish Obama's goals faster and more efficiently than the moves he made Monday.

It would also bring political backlash from consumers who want the entire burden for conservation to rest on the manufacturers.

But they also ultimately will pay for all of this new regulation.

The technology required to meet the standards Obama and California are imposing will add another $5,000 to $15,000 to the sticker price of a vehicle. That will make owning a new car a very elite experience.

Average Americans, who will also see the price of nearly everything else they purchase soar as regulatory extremism spreads to other areas of the economy, will be priced out of the new car market. And American auto workers will lose jobs.

Although Obama promises his tougher environmental stance will create green technology jobs, those jobs are still a future concept.

The jobs he is risking today in the auto industry are very real.