Column | EPA must not tamper with its mileage tests

September 16, 2013 

In 2010 and again in 2012, the Obama administration made one of its most important decisions on energy use and climate change.

It negotiated agreements with auto companies on new fuel economy standards for passenger vehicles that will reach up to 34 mpg by the model year 2016 and 54.5 mpg by 2025.

This is a 90 percent increase over previous levels, and it represents by far the biggest adjustment to vehicle fuel efficiency standards since their introduction in 1975. There also are new standards for medium and heavy-duty vehicles.

The passenger vehicle standards will result in sharp drops in release of both air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions.

The EPA estimates that greenhouse gas emissions from autos will be cut in half by 2025, making higher fuel efficiency standards the single most important action the federal government has taken on climate change.

The standards also reflect huge savings for drivers in fuel use and therefore in the cost of driving automobiles.

The EPA calculates that over time improved fuel economy will save consumers an amount equal to lowering the price of gasoline by $1 per gallon. The vehicles will cost a little more, but their higher efficiency more than makes up for the added cost. In fact, consumers will save about $8,000 per vehicle over its lifetime.

In addition, the standards are the most significant action the nation has taken to date to reduce its dependence on imported oil, thereby strengthening the country’s energy security and improving its economy. The fuel efficiency changes will reduce U.S. consumption of oil by about 2 million barrels a day by 2025. That’s the equivalent of one-half of what we import from OPEC nations every day.

There are additional gains from these actions. The standards encourage auto makers to innovate and invest in new technologies that are likely to make the U.S. more economically competitive and resilient in a shifting and uncertain global economy. Without the standards, Chinese and other foreign auto makers might well threaten domestic companies that lag behind in either fuel efficiency or automotive technologies that consumers are likely to demand.

Given all of these benefits to the nation, the EPA should reject efforts by the auto industry to revamp fuel economy standards or the testing procedures used to judge compliance with them.

The industry wants to make it easier for vehicles to meet the new mandates, in part because car makers would prefer to delay costly investments in new technologies.

Sadly, that has long been the posture of the industry. Auto companies have argued for decades that new environmental, safety and fuel economy standards were not technically achievable or were too costly to adopt. They wanted more wiggle room, and they still do.

By granting concessions to auto makers, the EPA would perpetuate use of old technologies and risk losing the substantial benefits that come with the new standards: improved air quality and public health, major fuel savings for consumers, a stronger economy, and essential reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

The federal government already offers the industry flexible and cost-effective compliance options. Thus without weakening standards or testing procedures, it can facilitate auto industry responses to tougher standards through existing credit trading systems, adjustments based on air conditioning system efficiency, credits for use of new energy-saving technologies and credits for use of non-conventional fuels.

The new fuel economy standards were adopted only after extensive consultation with the auto industry, auto workers, consumer groups, environmental and energy experts, and state governments.

Thirteen major auto makers supported the initiative to develop a consistent nationwide standard and create regulatory certainty going forward. To weaken the standards now would jeopardize the agreement and risk losing the enormous benefits that come with sticking to the original plan.

Michael E. Kraft is professor emeritus of political science and public and environmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. Write to him at 2420 Nicolet Drive, MAC B310, Green Bay, WI 54311 or kraftm@uwgb.edu.

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