11/25/2013 10:10 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

To Reward Efficiency, Let's Reward Efficiency

Photo by Ira Heuvelman-Dobrolyubova via Getty Images

It's no secret -- if you know me, have ever met me or have shared a meal with me -- that I'm a passionate environmentalist. Thus, I find myself closely watching all things climate-related in the news. When the U.N. released its landmark report on climate change this September, I can't say I read all 2,219 pages. Some of them I just skimmed. In the face of the undeniable data (even undeniable to the deniers) from this latest U.N. Climate Report, taking actions to effect the human impacts on climate change is a real and necessary priority. I take the side of the 97 percent of scientists who've concluded that global warming is manmade. I also know that there is something 100 percent of Americans can agree on: No matter what side of political lines we fall on, we all want to rely less on foreign oil and leave a better environment to our children. To help us achieve these goals, there is something more that we -- and especially America's drivers -- can do: Pull forward, just four short feet at the gas station, to the pump marked "diesel."

If just one-third of American drivers drove clean diesel, we could reduce U.S. oil consumption by 1.5 million barrels per day, 70 percent of the oil we import from the Persian Gulf states and a 645,000 metric ton reduction of daily carbon emissions. That's the equivalent of planting 2.2 billion -- yes billion -- trees. That's a forest the size of Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island combined. All by going about our business as usual, and driving, just with a different fuel.

Unfortunately, that progress is being held back by the unintended consequences of a long, outdated provision in the tax code and a biased regulatory system.

For a long time, diesel was seen as commercial fuel. To an extent, because of a lack of information about technological advances, it's still seen that way. More than once, I have stopped to refuel my clean diesel hatchback and had another driver at the pumps shout at me that I'm "using the diesel pump!!" Yes. Yes I am. And getting unbelievable gas mileage, thank you very much. Historically, diesel's penetration in the trucking market was due to the fact that the sootiness it caused seemed a small price to pay for an engine that tended to last longer, pull with greater torque and, yes, achieve much better gas mileage.

In the early 1980s, after the Federal Highway Administration reported that diesel-fueled heavy trucks were paying less than their fair share relative to road damage they caused, Congress proposed increasing taxes on the trucks themselves. After some legislative wrangling, they ultimately enacted a compromise that didn't tax the trucks, but did tax their fuel -- diesel. This marked the first time that diesel and gasoline were taxed differently, and history shows that the higher diesel tax was clearly meant to target the commercial market. In fact, to compensate the cohort of every day diesel car owners who were getting hit with the higher cost of gasoline, Congress included a one-time tax credit for consumer diesel vehicles in the bill.

That credit has long since expired, but the discrepancy in pricing remains. Today, the federal government taxes diesel at six cents a gallon over the rate of the gasoline tax. That gap is widened further by many state taxes, which, with the exception of California, also tax diesel at a higher rate than regular gas. That tax seems particularly regressive now, as diesel is no longer the fuel it once was. Many of today's diesel vehicles are actually cleaner than their gasoline counterparts.

For starters, diesel engines are between 20 to 40 percent more fuel efficient than standard gas engines. That means SUVs running on diesel engines can routinely get 30-40 miles to the gallon. Clean diesel vehicles using B20 fuel emit 15 percent less carbon dioxide, along with 10 percent less particulate matter and 21 percent less unburned hydrocarbons. And automakers have developed more effective emissions control technologies to reduce pollutants involved in smog and acid rain for engines running on ultra low-sulfur diesel.

All of these benefits, to both drivers and the environment, are achieved with performance characteristics that drivers love, myself included. We know that going green doesn't necessarily mean cutting back on the torque and sportiness we've come to love from our cars.

This is just part of the reason that so many diesel drivers feel frustrated. On top of paying more in taxes at the pump, our vehicles do not enjoy the benefits that many dirtier and less efficient cars do. For example, diesel cars reach their peak efficiency when driving on the highway. But because the federal government uses an outdated methodology to determine fuel economy, weighting city driving more heavily then highway driving, our cars wear stickers at the dealership indicating they're less efficient than they really are.

Still, drivers are realizing what governments are not: eco-conscious drivers, performance-minded drivers. Suddenly, the gap between those two categories is closing. We know that we can have our cake and eat it too. Consumer diesel vehicle sales increased 24 percent from 2011 to 2012. And that trend is continuing. Analysts project that diesel vehicles will move from comprising three to 10 percent of non-commercial vehicles by 2020.

Automakers are both tapping into and driving this demand. Chrysler, Ford, Mazda, Mercedes, and Volkswagen have already announced plans to introduce new clean diesel vehicles to the U.S., and over 20 new consumer models will hit the market this year alone -- including an impressive four models announced by Audi just last month. And that's just the beginning: By 2017, American consumers will have over 50 different diesel models to choose from.

While our nation is searching for ways to reduce its carbon footprint and get more miles per gallon, new technologies certainly have a role to play. But new advances on an old technology can help us make dramatic gains today. A small fix in the tax code and our regulatory regime can make a big difference in that effort. And they could make an even bigger difference in reducing America's carbon emissions and our dependence on foreign oil. It's time for the laws to catch up with the technology, to better the future for all of us.