Cleaner Car Standards Cometh?


In May 2010, President Obama sent a Presidential Memorandum asking that two agencies, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, propose new rules to limit greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from cars and trucks. Last week, the agencies responded with a proposed rule to that would limit emissions and improve fuel economy standards for light-duty vehicles for model years 2017-2025. If the new rules are adopted, cars, pickups and SUVs of the future would have to meet an average fuel efficiency equivalent to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025—representing a major leap forward in the quest for clean cars.

“The Obama administration’s clean cars proposal represents the biggest step ever taken to end America’s addition to Big Oil,” said Jillian Hertzberg, clean vehicles associate with Environment America. “By making the cars and trucks of the future cleaner and more fuel efficient, these standards will reap big benefits for our environment, our health and our economy.”

The entire 893-page report can be found online and details how fuel standards are developed, incentives for electric, hybrid and fuel-cell cars and the health and environmental impacts of greenhouse gases and auto-related pollutants, among other issues. It’s exhaustively thorough, and a great starting point for anyone wanting to understand the ins and outs of fuel and emissions standards or who wants to submit a comment during the 60-day public comment period.

The report notes, for instance, that rules would impact light-duty trucks, cars, SUVs and minivans, which together account for about 60% of all U.S. transportation-related GHG emissions and fuel consumption. The improvements would happen in phases. So during phase 1 (2017-2021), fuel standards would be raised to 40.9mpg. That would increase to 49.6mpg by 2025. These new standards will be met, the agencies note, using a range of technologies “including improvements in air conditioning efficiency, which reduces both GHG emissions and fuel consumption.”

Not only will the new standards reduce fuel use and emissions, saving “approximately 4 billion barrels of oil and 2 billion metric tons of GHG emissions over the lifetime of vehicles sold between 2017 and 2025,” they will also mean significant pump savings for consumers. The report notes: “Those consumers who drive their MY 2025 vehicle for its entire lifetime will save, on average, $5,200 to $6,600 in fuel savings” which, taking into account the higher purchase price, will result in “a net lifetime savings of $3,000 to $4,400”

There is a lot of history when it comes to fuel economy standards, beginning with Congress’ Energy Policy and Conservation Act in 1975. The goal of that act was for the nation to conserve energy and, ultimately, achieve a greater measure of U.S. energy independence. But the report finds that “U.S. energy consumption has been outstripping U.S. energy production at an increasing rate” despite the fact that “improving our energy and national security by reducing our dependence on foreign oil has been a national objective since the first oil price shocks in the 1970s.” As of 2009, the U.S. imported 51% of its petroleum, of which 71% was accounted for by transportation. As recent years have shown, this dependency puts the nation in a precarious position: dependent on unstable countries and prone to price shocks that have negative impacts on the U.S. economy. As a consequence,” the report concludes, “measures that reduce petroleum consumption, like fuel economy standards, will directly benefit the balance-of-payments account, and strengthen the U.S. economy to some degree.”

The environmental reasons are equally compelling: more stringent fuel economy standards will be game changing for the future of electric and hybrid vehicles and have the immediate effect of reducing large quantities of harmful global warming pollution. Environment America notes that “By 2030 the proposed standards would reduce annual global warming pollution by 280 million metric tons, roughly equivalent to shutting down 70 coal fired power plants for one year.”

Public hearings on the proposed rules will be held January 17, 2012 in Detroit, Michigan; January 19, 2012 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and January 24, 2012 in San Francisco, California.