NEW YORK — Take a look at the car in your driveway. Now imagine it looking about the same, but with double the fuel economy. That’s your tax dollars at work, in an initiative designed both to address foreign oil dependence and climate change. By 2016, cars sold in the U.S. will have to meet a phased-in 35.5 miles per gallon fleet average. It’s the outcome of a joint Environmental Protection Agency/Department of Transportation initiative, fulfilling an Obama promise to put clean cars on the road — and reversing a near-decade of Bush administration paralysis on the issue.
What’s miraculous is that the administration managed to put together a program that the auto industry — which generally abhors regulation of any kind — actually supports. And it got them shaking hands with environmentalists. The basic lesson is to involve your partners in the rulemaking process from the beginning.
There are reasons for everybody to be holding hands and singing “Kumbaya.” Not only will the standards save 61.6 billion gallons of fuel and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 565 million metric tons, says the EPA, but they will also save more than $200 billion and reduce our foreign oil dependence. Perhaps because the strategy of staying the course with SUVs and trucks was a big reason two automakers, GM and Chrysler, were pushed into bankruptcy, they ended up more willing to listen.
In a series of public hearings this and next week, including one I attended in New York today — automakers and environmental speakers generally praised the federal regs, though some quibbled with the details. Under the gavel of EPA air chief Margo Oge, the only significant dissenter was the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA), whose real target is not the 35.5-mpg target but an EPA waiver granting California the right to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from its own cars.
Here's Margo Oge on video talking about the historic agreement:
What NADA fears, said Andrew Koblenz, an association vice president, is that California’s regulations will force state car dealers to stock only small, green cars and trucks. And because of that, auto shoppers in the state will go across the border and buy there — depriving dealers of sales. “The idea is to design a program that produces product that people will want to buy and be able to afford,” he told me. If fuel prices go down, NADA fears lots full of very green but unsold vehicles.
In reality, this scenario seems rather remote. California is abiding by the federal regulations in the model years 2012 to 2016, and from 2009 to 2011 the state standards are very easy to meet, Oge says, and shouldn’t result in cross-border shopping.
But people do have choice in the marketplace. EPA is projecting that its rules will help shift buyers from trucks and SUVs into cars. It envisions cars reaching 58 percent of the market (it’s just over half now) by 2011 and 69 percent by 2016. But, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), if stubborn consumers keep the car fleet at 58 percent by the end of the four-year program some 10 percent of the projected gains will be lost. ACEEE wants a provision that would automatically make the regulations tougher on tailpipes if real-world emission reductions aren’t reached.
Doug O’Malley of the New Jersey chapter of Environment America testified in New York, and he sums up this way. “The popular wisdom was that the automakers were going to be solidly against the rulings, that it was a patchwork of regulations and so on. But the dynamic has totally changed. Under President Bush the EPA ignored the clean car work that was happening on the state level, but now that’s been turned on its head by EPA administrator Lisa Jackson. The EPA is finally listening to the science and acting on the threat of climate change.”