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Aug 272009
 

By Harriet Blake
Green Right Now

The Cash for Clunkers program, which ended this week, may have been more environmentally friendly than originally thought. The concern among environmentalists was that by tossing away old cars and buying news ones, the program encouraged a throw-away society mentality — something Americans are often accused of.

The Sierra Club, says the organization’s policy analyst Jesse Prentice-Dunn, initially had concerns that the bill was weak.

“Now, looking at the final stats,” he says, “consumers did buy more fuel-efficient vehicles. One thing that was very encouraging, was that more than 84 percent traded in trucks and other gas guzzlers; and 59 percent purchased cars.”

They may not have purchased hybrids, says Prentice-Dunn — the Prius was No. 7 on the list of cars purchased. However, the fact that they bought more fuel-efficient cars was important. The Sierra Club, he says, was encouraged by consumers’ choices.

The Cash for Clunkers program made a point, says Prentice-Dunn. “It’s time for national discussion on fuel economy. [The program] helped move us forward on curbing global warming.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation said that under the CARS program — in which consumers traded in outdated vehicles for cash rebates on new car purchases — dealers submitted 690,114 sales totaling $2.88 billion, just shy of the plan’s $3 billion budget.

The biggest industry beneficiaries were Japanese automakers Toyota, Honda and Nissan, which accounted for 41 percent of the new vehicle sales, according to the Associated Press.

That outpaced Detroit automakers General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, which had a share of nearly 39 percent. Toyota Motor Corp. led the industry with 19.4 percent of new sales, followed by General Motors Co. with 17.6 percent and Ford Motor Co. with 14.4 percent, the AP reported.

The Toyota Corolla was the most popular new vehicle purchased under the program. The Honda Civic, Toyota Camry and Ford Focus held the next three top spots. All four are built in the United States.

“This program has been a lifeline to the automobile industry, jump-starting a major sector of the economy and putting people back to work,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “At the same time, we’ve been able to take old, polluting cars off the road and help consumers purchase fuel efficient vehicles.”

The Cash for Clunkers program, as the Sierra Club’s website points out, put the consumer in the driver’s seat to make the best choice. To help with this decision, the site provided readers with advice on making a selection as well as charts to help buyers calculate their savings.

President Barack Obama signed the Clunkers bill, officially named the Consumer Assistance to Recycle and Save (CARS) Program, in June. The progam was wildly embraced by consumers when it began in July, and ran out of money in just one week. A second infusion of cash put it back in business in August.

Under the program owners of gas-guzzling cars could trade them in for a $3,500 to $4,500 voucher toward a new and more energy-efficient car. The gas guzzlers had to meet certain age requirements and get 18 miles or less to the gallon.

NPR reported on the program’s merits in a broadcast earlier this week, stating that questions still remain about the program’s effect on the environment. The broadcast quoted Michael Gerrard, director of Columbia Law School’s Center for Climate Change Law, as saying the program was wonderful for the economy, but had only a “middling success for greenhouse gas emissions.” In order to make a large impact, says Gerrard, the government should have demanded a greater mileage differential between the required difference in mileage for old and new vehicles.

Prentice Dunn says he agrees that there should have been more stringent fuel economy considerations in the original CARS legislation. “The Sierra Club endorsed competing proposals in both the House and Senate,” he says. “However, over the duration of the Cash for Clunkers program, we’ve seen that consumers have valued fuel economy and indeed traded in clunkers in favor of more efficient vehicles. Would this be the first policy to turn to in an effort to solve climate change? No. However, because of consumer’s decisions, this program has stimulated auto sales, taken gas-guzzling SUVs off the road and replaced them with more efficient cars and importantly, put the benefits of efficient vehicles and reducing oil dependence and global warmings in water cooler and kitchen table conversations across the country.”

Rae Tyson with the US DOT believes the program was a win-win situation. “You get vehicles off the road that use more fuel and at the same time you send the old ones to salvage yards that can recycle the car parts.”

“The engine is destroyed,” says Tyson, “but then we give salvage yards time to recycle as much of the vehicle as possible. Aluminum, for instance, may end up as the metal of a soft drink can. The only parts that can’t be recycled are shredded and crushed. “The vehicle’s end products do not end up in the landfill, says Tyson.

The Sierra Club’s Prentice-Dunn notes that the law is clear. “The car dealers have to show proof that they have disabled the engines — [the part of the vehicle] which has us addicted to oil. Then car dealers have 180 days to recycle the parts, remove mercury and sell the rest as scrap.”

Prentice-Dunn says he’s impressed with  the Department of Transportation, which “has had to do the bulk of the heaving lifting in a short time frame” to put Cash for Clunkers into effect.

Irwin Dawid, a member of the Sierra Club’s California Air Quality Committee, acknowledges that while some environmentalists dismissed the program because of its lack of improvements on vehicle efficiency, the program did succeed on two levels.

“Not only did the motorist purchase a more efficient vehicle, but guzzlers were literally being scrapped. While many parts can be pulled for resale, the engine and the drive train go to the shredder, along with the rest of the clunker that is recycled. More importantly, from an air quality perspective, the gains are more substantial than the energy savings as new vehicles, including SUVs and trucks, are far cleaner than older models because of the advanced emission technology.”

Perhaps Cash for Clunkers was not green enough for everyone. Yet it did bring fuel economy to the forefront of a needed national conversation.

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