Separating Myth from Fact on “Cash for Clunkers”

As
debate rages on in the capital over whether to keep assisting the auto
industry by giving out more "cash for clunkers" rebates, two assertions
are becoming commonplace: the program is helping diminish U.S. oil
consumption, and the program is not paid for with new money.

ap_gma_cash_clunkers_090731_mn.jpg(Photo: AP)

The first argument was reiterated on Friday by President Obama, who said of the "clunkers" auto trade-in discounts: "This gives consumers a break, reduces dangerous
carbon pollution and our dependence on foreign oil, and strengthens the
American auto industry."

That same day, however, energy analysts were crunching the numbers for Reuters.
Even if $2 billion in new "clunker" rebates were offered, they found,
the total resulting decline in America’s daily oil consumption would be 0.05 percent:

"It has proved to be a highly successful vehicle marketing tool," said
Tim Evans, energy analyst for Citi Futures Perspective in New York.
"But you would need a microscope to see the demand impact for gasoline
from this program because it involves a relatively small number of
vehicles."

The
Reuters estimate assumes an average upgrade in fuel efficiency of 10
miles per gallon, which is in line with initial auto industry statistics on new trade-ins.

The
analysis also assumes 250,000 trade-ins, which the government estimates
is roughly the number that took place during the first $1 billion week
of the taxpayer-subsidized "clunkers" program. Given the likelihood of
new funding for the rebates, however, that 0.05 percent number could
double or triple — for a total daily oil-consumption reduction of 0.15
percent.

The second argument, that offering $2 billion in
extra "clunkers" cash would not amount to deficit spending, stems from
Democratic leaders’ decision to shift the funds over from a Department
of Energy (DoE) loan guarantee program.

That strategy was designed to appeal to fiscal hawks who would have a difficult time voting to add to the already trillion-dollar federal deficit. Indeed. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) already put her leaders on notice (via Twitter) that she could only vote yes on "clunkers" if no new money was spent.

But
the DoE loans in question were approved to encourage the development of
alternative energy and biofuels, two "green job" creators that have
influential allies on Capitol Hill. Senate Energy Committee Chairman
Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) is already
criticizing the shift as a raid on the clean-energy pot, and Renewable
Fuels Association chief Bob Dineen said he wants Congress to promptly
put the $2 billion back home at the DoE:

The
ethanol industry understands the trying economic times this country
finds itself in and thus supports ideas like the "cash for clunkers”
program, but is concerned to see the program paid for by depleting the
renewable energy loan guarantee program. We hope Congress will move
quickly to replenish the fund. One of the advantages of the “cash for
clunkers” program is putting more fuel efficient cars on the road,
however those new cars should also be running on renewable fuels like
ethanol in order to benefit both the changing climate and the domestic
economy. For the U.S. long term auto and fuel needs, it seems
counterproductive to limit the renewable fuels industry.

Given the political pressure already being exerted, it’s difficult to
see how congressional leaders can avoid spending a new $2 billion to
keep the auto rebates alive. Replenishing the DoE fund would take place
in a separate vote later this year, however, making it easier for
lawmakers to claim they’re not adding to the deficit with this week’s
"clunkers" vote.

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