A Note to Obama and Peña Nieto: Cleaning up Mexico's Dirty Fuels would benefit both Countries

As President Obama heads to Mexico tomorrow, he no doubt will be reviewing the difficult issues that he and Mexican President Peña Nieto plan to tackle during their meetings: immigration, security, trade and energy. Of these four, Obama says that economic issues such as trade and energy will be his main focus. These are certainly expansive topics of great import for both countries. Yet without identifying specific plans, it will be difficult for their administrations to demonstrate real progress at the end of their conversation. Here is one specific idea for these two heads of state to agree on that would bring economic –plus health and climate—benefits to both countries: prioritize cleaning up Mexico’s dirty diesel fuels and vehicle fleets. Doing so would benefit both presidents and their respective constituents, augment bi-lateral trade, clean up air on both sides of the border, and save lives.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 14,700 Mexicans died prematurely in 2010 due to air pollution. A new report from the Clean Air Institute found that emissions levels of particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5), sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and Ozone (O3) in Mexico far exceed WHO’s guideline recommendations.* Transportation is a major contributor to this problem, and so any solution must start with this sector. In particular, vehicles need to become more efficient at using fuels and less polluting by using low-sulfur fuels and better pollution filters.

Fortunately, regulations for these improvements are already in the works in Mexico. The controversial bill mandating increased fuel efficiency for cars and light duty trucks is under review, and bills limiting emissions from both heavy and light duty vehicles are being discussed. Mexico already passed a regulation in 2006 requiring cleaner diesel fuels with lower sulfur content, but, importantly, it needs updating and actual implementation (a fuller account of that bill’s lack of teeth is here).

So what specifically needs to be done? The Calderon administration had started working on all of these bills, but never made the needed push to finish them before its term ended last year. The Peña Nieto administration already knows these issues are important, and included them in the National Energy Strategy. The president now needs to prioritize, pass and implement them.

President Peña Nieto has a lot to gain by passing these regulations soon. Politically, he would effectively own the clean air issue. From a public health standpoint, he would be saving thousands of his people’s lives and their money due to reduced health care costs. He would also help them save money at the gas pump by making cars more fuel efficient. He would be contributing to his country’s climate efforts –already outlined in Mexico’s Climate Change Law—by reducing black carbon emissions that come from high sulfur content diesel, and that are the second most powerful contributor to climate change.

President Obama will benefit from this effort, as well. These regulations could align the U.S. and Mexican vehicle and diesel standards, making it easier for international auto companies to sell their vehicles in both countries, thereby increasing commerce in both directions across the border. Obama’s administration has made great strides of its own passing this type of legislation in the U.S., most recently passing clean car standards in August 2012 – the biggest action the U.S. has ever taken to cut carbon pollution. By encouraging Mexico to follow suit, and by assisting with technical and policy expertise, the U.S. would be contributing to global climate efforts. It also would be helping to clean up the air in U.S. communities situated along the Mexican border (since air flow does not respect political boundaries).

Finally, Obama would be saving the U.S. taxpayers a bit of money, since the large U.S. limo fleet fuels up on Premium gas in Mexico for his visits.

As Presidents Obama and Peña Nieto meet over the next two days, it is critical that they discuss the big issues. But they also need to identify specific plans and work together to see them through in order to see progress on those issues. The fuel and vehicle standards, having languished for years in Mexico’s regulatory process, need to be prioritized. Their passage would create a win-win situation for both countries.

*except for SO2, for which the report mentions the WHO has no guideline

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