Sport Utility Vehicles: Recent Trends and their Environmental Impact

Songseng Sinantha

Writer’s comment: The assignment, in English 104A (Business Reports & Technical Communication), was to write a report on a current industry trend. Simple enough. The challenge, however, was to become an expert on this trend in a quarter and convey this knowledge in a manner that I had never before encountered in the university, i.e., “Business and Technical” writing. I forged ahead with at least 25 changes in topic and 10 rough drafts—all of which were worthy of the recycle bin. Finally, in a weekend of intensive research, writing, and suicidal tendency, I produced something that was good enough to be shared. This thoroughly reflects the abilities of an infinitely patient and skilled teacher, Jayne Walker.
- Songseng Sinantha

Instructor’s comment: Songseng’s industry trend report is a splendid response to the final assignment in my English 104A: Business Reports and Technical Communication course. Like so many 104A students, she began the quarter intimidated by the challenge of mastering the style and structural principles of efficient business writing. By the time she wrote this report, she was deploying these strategies brilliantly. I’m glad that I can show it to other students as a model for their own trend reports, although I hope that no one will be tempted to emulate Songseng’s nervewracking last-minute research and writing marathon.
- Jayne Walker, English Department

 

Sport Utility Vehicles: Recent Trends and their Environmental Impact

Prepared for the United States Senate
Committee on Environment and Public Works

Songseng Sinantha
Representative
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

March 21, 2000

 

Table of Contents
  PAGE
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 33
INTRODUCTION 34
SUV SALES INCREASE WHILE FUEL EFFICIENCY DECLINES 34
SUV POLLUTANTS POSE HEALTH HAZARDS 36
POLLUTANTS CONTRIBUTE TO GLOBAL WARMING 37
FUEL INEFFICIENCY DEPLETES NONRENEWABLE RESOURCES 38
CONCLUSION 40
REFERENCES 40
SOURCES 42

 

Graphs and Tables
  PAGE
SUV SALES GROWTH, 1980-1999 35
DECLINING AVERAGE FUEL ECONOMY 35
NITROGEN OXIDE EMISSION STANDARDS 36
U.S. CARBON DIOXIDE EMISSIONS 38
IMPORTED OIL AS A PERCENT OF TOTAL U.S. CONSUMPTION 39

Executive Summary

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends updating the Clean Air Act of 1970 to hold sport utility vehicles (SUVs) to the same pollution standards as passenger vehicles. SUVs were used mainly as work vehicles when the Clean Air Act was first established; there were fewer than 200,000 of them on the road. As a result, SUVs were allowed to emit three times as much pollution as passenger vehicles. In the past three decades, SUV sales have dramatically risen to over 3,000,000 in 1999. However, pollution standards have not been updated to reflect this increase.

Bigger cars pollute more. An increased number of these cars on the road pollute even more again. SUV pollution is further magnified by its fuel inefficiency. In 1999, average SUV fuel economy was 20.3 MPG compared to 28.1 MPG for passenger cars. These figures are the lowest since 1980. For every gallon of gas burned by an SUV, 26 pounds of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, is put into the air. Fuel economy is about more than saving gas and money: it is about saving the environment.

While SUV fuel inefficiency depletes oil reserves, its pollutants pose health hazards and contribute to global warming. SUVs unnecessarily spew large amounts of hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides. Combined with sunlight, these two pollutants form smog. Smog that can irritate the lungs, make breathing difficult, and weaken the immune system. SUVs emit millions of metric tons of carbon dioxide, contributing to global warming. Global warming can cause extreme weather, destroying agriculture and wildlife, and threatening our lives. SUV fuel inefficiency hastens the depletion of a finite, nonrenewable resource: oil. Tightening pollution standards will mitigate the environmental damages SUVs cause.

Introduction

The United States Senate Committee on Environment and Public works needs to update the Federal Clean Air Act of 1970 to reflect changes in pollution sources, specifically light trucks like sport utility vehicles (SUVs). Thirty years ago, SUVs were used primarily to haul heavy workloads in agriculture and construction. Consequently, they were held to lower emission standards than passenger cars. Since then, SUVs have been marketed as family passenger vehicles and their sales have soared. Pollutant emission standards remain unchanged.

The rising number of SUVs on the road and declining average fuel economy exacerbate our already serious air pollution problem. Holding SUVs and other light trucks (minivans and pickups weighing less than 8,500 pounds) to the same pollution standards as cars would force automakers to implement fuel-efficient emission controlling technology. Raising pollution standards would mitigate the harmful environmental impact of SUVs: smog, climate change, and depletion of non-renewable resources.

SUV Sales Increase while Fuel Efficiency Declines

With the low fuel prices of the 1980s and the robust economy of the late 1990s, SUVs have become more affordable and more popular. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics of the U.S. Department of Transportation, 243,000 SUVs were sold in 1980. In 1990, 931,000 were sold, an increase of over 380%. Automotive News reports that SUV sales rose to almost 3 million in 1999. If these growth trends continue, there will be 133 million light trucks on the road in 2020. Increased sales of fuel-inefficient SUVs have outpaced overall fuel economy and pollution reduction progress.

 

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Source of Data: Bureau of Transportation Statistics, U.S. Department of Transportation
The increasing market share of SUVs is the primary reason for the overall decline in automobile fuel economy. In 1980, SUVs were less than 2% of the overall automobile market; they make up 20% of the market today. Overall average fuel economy was 23.8 miles per gallon (MPG) in 1999, the lowest since 1980. Within this figure, the average fuel economy was 28.1 MPG for passenger cars and 20.3 MPG for SUVs. Average fuel economy for light trucks has dropped 1.0 MPG since 1996.

 

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Declining Average Fuel Economy
Source of Graph: Office of Mobile Resources, Environmental Protection Agency
The technology is available to increase fuel economy and consumers are willing to pay the slightly higher price. Currently, only about 15% of the energy in fuel is used to move a car down the road. All of the steps at which energy is wasted and pollution emitted present opportunities for advanced technologies to increase fuel economy. Automakers believe improving engine and transmission designs to increase fuel efficiency and reduce pollution would add less than $200 to an SUV’s price. According to a 1999 survey conducted by the Public Interest Research Group, 80% of those surveyed would pay an additional $200-450 for a fuel efficient SUV that would emit a third less pollution.

SUV Pollutants Pose Health Hazards

Because of the outdated regulatory loophole of the Clean Air Act, SUVs are allowed to emit three times as much pollution as passenger cars. Current federal law allows SUVs to spew out 30% more carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons and 75% more nitrogen oxides than passenger cars.

 

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Source of Data: U.S. Public Research Institute
Nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, and hydrocarbons are the most toxic pollutants resulting from incomplete combustion of fuel. At current emission rates, SUVs on the road in 2020 would emit 1.38 million tons of smog-forming nitrogen oxide pollution each year.

Hydrocarbon and nitrogen oxides interact with sunlight to form ground level ozone, more commonly known as smog. This invisible, odorless gas is the most prevalent air contaminant in our nation. When inhaled, ozone oxidizes or “burns through” lung tissue. Breathing ozone causes airways in the lungs to become swollen and inflamed, eventually scarring the lungs. Ozone decreases the amount of oxygen delivered to the body through each breath. In addition, exposure to ozone can weaken immune system defenses, increasing susceptibility to bacterial infections.

An estimated 117 million people live in high ground level ozone areas. A 1996 American Lung Association study of 13 cities found that between 30,000 and 50,000 emergency room visits during the 1994 ozone season (May to September) were caused by ozone pollution. A 1991 study in Los Angeles by Loma Linda University researchers found a 37% increase in all forms of cancer and a 72% increase in lung cancer for women who were exposed to smog at least 42 days a year for 10 years or more. This is a relatively common level of exposure in Los Angeles. The loophole in the Clean Air Act allows SUVs to add more health threatening pollutants into the air.

Pollutants Contribute to Global Warming

SUVs are increasing the risk of climate change. SUVs emit large amounts of carbon dioxide, the most significant greenhouse gas. Carbon dioxide molecules in the atmosphere trap heat radiated from the earth. Rising average global temperatures, receding polar ice caps, and higher sea levels indicate that global warming is a real threat. According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, increases in the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases may lead to irreversible changes in climate. One-third of all U.S. carbon dioxide pollution comes from transportation. Because more SUVs are on the road and they burn more gas than cars, more carbon dioxide is being released.

 

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Source of Data: Energy Information Administration, U.S. Department of Energy
For every gallon of gas burned by an SUV, 26 pounds of carbon dioxide is put into the atmosphere. SUVs and light truck fuel inefficiency has increased carbon dioxide emissions by 717 million metric tons. The greenhouse effect caused by carbon dioxide produces more extreme weather, rising sea levels that erode coastal areas and contaminate fresh water supplies, threats to agriculture and wildlife, and public health risks from infectious disease and heat deaths.

Tightening pollution standards and improving fuel economy of SUVs is a critical step to addressing the threat of global warming. A single vehicle that gets 25 rather than 20 MPG will prevent 10 tons of carbon dioxide from being released over its lifetime. Fuel economy is about more than saving gas and money: it is about saving the environment.

Fuel Inefficiency Depletes Nonrenewable Resources

SUVs and other light vehicles account for approximately 40 percent of all U.S. oil consumption. It took more than 200 million years for all the oil beneath the earth’s surface to form, but only 200 years for us to consume half of this reserve. For more than a decade, the U.S. has used more domestic oil each year than the amount being discovered. Net U.S. oil reserves have generally been decreasing each year, as evidenced by our increased dependence on foreign oil. By importing almost 50% of the oil used in the U.S., our oil reserves have extended from 3-5 years of supply to 6-10 years.

 

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Imported Oil as a Percent of Total U.S. Consumption
Source of Graph: Energy Information Administration, U.S. Department of Energy
U.S. sensitivity to fluctuations in foreign oil supply is especially evident in current gas prices around the nation, which continue to rise dramatically because of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries’ reduction of oil production. Fuel-inefficient vehicles like SUVs increase U.S. dependence on foreign oil and contribute to the rapid depletion of oil overall.

Since 1990, the inefficiency of SUVs and other light vehicles have led to Americans wasting an extra 70 billion gallons of gasoline. If current rates of consumption continue, both the U.S. and world’s remaining oil resources will be used up in 40 years. Furthermore, as countries with large populations, like China, become industrialized, there will be more demand on a finite amount of oil. In search of oil reserves, humans may excavate and destroy uncharted ecosystems around the world. Tougher pollution and fuel economy standards of vehicles, especially SUVs, would help conserve oil for future use. More efficient use of oil reduces environmental impacts and buys time to develop new, better, and affordable transportation and fuel alternatives.

Conclusion

The Environmental Protection Agency recommends an amendment to the Clean Air Act of 1970 that would require all SUVs and other light trucks to meet the same emissions standards met by passenger cars. Because SUVs are fuel inefficient, they are large contributors to air pollution. Some of these hazardous pollutants include nitrogen oxide, hydrocarbons, and carbon dioxide. With sunlight, these pollutants combine to create smog and contribute to permanent, detrimental climate changes. Holding SUVs to the same pollution standards as cars will force automakers to implement available fuel-efficient technology. Amending the Clean Air Act to raise light truck pollution standards will mitigate the negative environmental impact of recent SUV sales trends.

References

1. “How Cleaner Cars Could Help Us All Breathe Easier,” U.S. Public Research Institute, 27 Feb. 2000, http://www.igc.org/pirg/reports/enviro/suv/suv_report.htm.

2. Ibid.

3. “Growth in Motor Vehicle Ownership and Use,” Bureau of Transportation Statistics, U.S. Department of Transportation, 1 Mar. 2000, http://www.bts.gov/jts/V2N1/2pickrell.pdf.

4. “Light-Duty Automotive Technology and Fuel Economy Trends Through 1999,” Office of Mobile Sources, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 27 Feb. 2000, http://www.epa.gov/orcdizux/cert/mpg/fetrends/s99003.htm.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. “Energy Technology and Fuel Economy,” Fuel Economy: U.S. Department of Transportation, 1 Mar. 2000, http://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/tv.shtml.

8. Marianne Lavelle, “New rules for those fun trucks: Cleaner gas and less pollution for SUVs,” U.S. News & World Report, 3 Mar. 2000, wysiwyg://40/http://www.usnews.com/usnews/issue/990215/15epa.htm.

9. “SUV Survey Report, 1999,” U.S. Public Interest Research Group, 3 Mar. 2000, http://www.pirg.org/reports/environ/suv/suv_survey.html.

10. Ibid.

11. “How Cleaner Cars Could Help Us All Breathe Easier,” U.S. Public Research Institute, 27 Feb. 2000, http://www.igc.org/pirg/reports/enviro/suv/suv_report.htm.

12. Ibid.

13. “SUVs and the Environment,” The Sport Utility Vehicle Anit-Fan Club, 1 Mar. 2000, http://www.howard.net/ban-suvs.htm.

14. “Automobiles and Ozone,” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 27 Feb. 2000, http://www.epa.gov/OMSWWW/04-ozone.htm.

15. “Ozone: Good Up High, Bad Nearby,” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 27 Feb. 2000, wysiwyg://73/http:www.epa.gov/oar/oaqps/gooduphigh/.

16. Ibid.

17. “Climate Change…,” Fuel Economy: U.S. Department of Transportation, 1 Mar. 2000, http://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/climate.shtml.

18. “U.S. Emissions of Greenhouse Gases by Gas, Based on Global Warming Potential, 1990-1998,” Energy Information Administration, U.S. Department of Energy, 8 Mar. 2000, http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/1605/ggrpt/tbles2.html.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid.

21. “Fuel economy is on the decline,” San Diego Earth Times, 3 Mar. 2000, http://www.sdearthtimes.com/et1199/et119910.html.

22. Ibid.

23. “Imported Oil as a Percent of Total U.S. Consumption,” Energy Information Administration, U.S. Department of Energy, 8 Mar. 2000, http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/25opec/sld002.htm.

24. Ibid. 25. “Environmental Double Standards for Sport Utility Vehicles,” The SUV Info Link, 2 Mar. 2000, http://www.suv.org/environ.html.

26. “Conserve Resources for Future Generations,” Fuel Economy: U.S. Department of Transportation, 1 Mar. 2000, http://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/savemoney.shtml.

Sources

“Automobiles and Ozone,” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 27 Feb. 2000, http://www.epa.gov/OMSWWW/04-ozone.htm.

“Climate Change…,” Fuel Economy: U.S. Department of Transportation, 1 Mar. 2000, http://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/climate.shtml.

“Conserve Resources for Future Generations,” Fuel Economy: U.S. Department of Transportation, 1 Mar. 2000, http://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/savemoney.shtml.

“Environmental Double Standards for Sport Utility Vehicles,” The SUV Info Link, 2 Mar. 2000, http://www.suv.org/environ.html.

“Fuel Economy is on the Decline,” San Diego Earth Times, 3 Mar. 2000, http://www.sdearthtimes.com/et1199/et119910.html.

“Growth in Motor Vehicle Ownership and Use,” Bureau of Transportation Statistics, U.S. Department of Transportation, 1 Mar. 2000, http://www.bts.gov/jts/V2N1/2pickrell.pdf.

“How Cleaner Cars Could Help Us All Breathe Easier,” Public Research Institute, 27 Feb. 2000, http://www.igc.org/pirg/reports/enviro/suv/suv_report.htm.

“Imported Oil as a Percent of Total U.S. Consumption,” Energy Information Administration, U.S. Department of Energy, 8 Mar. 2000, http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/25opec/sld002.htm.

Lavelle, Marianne, “New Rules for those Fun Trucks: Cleaner gas and less pollution for SUVs,” U.S. News & World Report, 3 Mar. 2000, wysiwyg://40/http://www.usnews.com/usnews/issue/990215/15epa.htm.

“Light-Duty Automotive Technology and Fuel Economy Trends Through 1999,” Office of Mobile Sources, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 27 Feb. 2000, http://www.epa.gov/orcdizux/cert/mpg/fetrends/s99003.htm.

“Ozone: Good Up High, Bad Nearby,” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 27 Feb. 2000, wysiwyg://73/http:www.epa.gov/oar/oaqps/gooduphigh/.

“SUV Survey Report, 1999,” U.S. Public Interest Research Group, 3 Mar. 2000, http://www.pirg.org/reports/environ/suv/suv_survey.html.

“SUVs and the Environment,” The Sport Utility Vehicle Anit-Fan Club, 1 Mar. 2000, http://www.howard.net/ban-suvs.htm.

“U.S. Emissions of Greenhouse Gases by Gas, Based on Global Warming Potential, 1990-1998,” Energy Information Administration, U.S. Department of Energy, 8 Mar. 2000, http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/1605/ggrpt/tbles2.html.