Old clunkers for new clunkers?

When Congress rushed to pass a $2 billion extension of the enormously popular “Cash for Clunkers” program earlier this month, cheerleaders included Tim Jackson, president of the Colorado Automobile Dealers Association, who like President Obama extolled the environmental virtues of the program.

Jackson said the environmental benefits were not fully understood by the public. Obama praised those benefits from the start:

“This gives consumers a break, reduces dangerous carbon pollution and our dependence on foreign oil, and strengthens the American auto industry,” he said last month, urging Congress to approve the additional funds.

Yet The New York Times captured a wholly different sentiment coming out of the White House yesterday, quoting an anonymous senior aide doubting that the environmental benefits are worth mentioning at all.

“What we ended up with,” said one senior Obama administration official, who would not speak on the record because he was being critical of his own administration’s environmental bona fides, “is a program in which you trade in old clunkers for new clunkers.”

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Indeed, the numbers pouring out of the Department of Transportation last week seemed to indicate that drivers were turning in their gas guzzlers for vehicles with much better fuel efficiencies. The department’s official top-10 list of newly purchased vehicles included only small cars.

Yet, a reworking of that list by Edmunds.com, the auto-sales analysis group, found that the administration was playing the numbers to their advantage, CNN reported. Indeed, when Edmunds crunched the new sales by make and model, and didn’t break its analysis down further than that, both the Ford F-150 and the Chevrolet Silverado pickup trucks worked their way into the top 10. (By contrast, the Transportation Department considered each of the five versions of those trucks to be different vehicles for tallying purposes.)

None of this matters in the near term, because the additional $2 billion is already law. But no one’s quite sure how long that funding will last, and you can bet that, if the coffers are dry when Congress returns from recess next month, there will be plenty of pressure on lawmakers to provide yet another expensive lifeline for the program. The question that remains is whether some will fight to alter the guidelines in favor of reduced emissions.

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