Greening our Cars and Trucks

Want to help reduce U.S. oil dependence, cut dangerous carbon pollution and save money at the gas pump? Providing Americans with more choices of clean, high-efficiency cars and trucks is vital to reaching those goals. We must also focus on how we fuel our vehicles. Fortunately, we know the policies—and in some cases are implementing them—that will green our transportation fleet.

A recent study, carrying a foreboding title of “Car-tastrophe,” would have you believe we’re headed in the wrong direction. The study claims that U.S. government efforts to encourage a cleaner, less oil-dependent fleet are misguided. Specifically, the report questions the effectiveness of incentives for plug-in electric vehicles and biofuels because “the environmental benefits of both remain questionable.” The report fails to acknowledge where the government is making important progress with vehicle standards. It also is wrong in its environmental assessment of plug-in electric vehicles. Furthermore, it misses the opportunity for future reductions from policies that drive commercialization of advanced biofuels.

First, the report ignores the incredibly successful federal and state programs to improve fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas emission standards for automobiles and heavy trucks. Vehicle standards are the cheapest, fastest and cleanest way to cut our oil dependence and transportation carbon pollution. After decades of stagnant fuel economy standards (known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards), the Obama Administration, working with the State of California and several other states, the auto industry and environmentalists, set CAFE and GHG emission standards for passenger vehicles produced in model years 2012 to 2016. The new “National Program” creates needed certainty for a recently battered auto industry by ensuring that investments in low-emission, fuel-efficient technologies will pay off and by putting the companies on a path to be more competitive in a future of volatile oil and gasoline prices.

Federal agencies and California are not resting on the success of the current National Program, but are working on its second phase to chart a path from 2017 to 2025 that will provide even greater certainty to the industry, pollution reductions and oil savings.  With the support of the medium- and heavy-truck industry, the federal agencies also recently proposed the first-ever fuel efficiency and GHG standards under a new Heavy-Duty National Program. Again, U.S. industry supports the program because it provides them certainty and makes them more competitive in a volatile fuel price future.

Second, contrary to the report’s positioning, plug-in electric vehicles are clean. They will become cleaner with improvements in the grid, and incentives today will help ensure that they will be adopted broadly across the auto market in the future.

Even when accounting for upstream electricity production, plug-in vehicles emit less global warming pollution than conventional vehicles. Considering the national average electricity generation mix, first-generation plug-in vehicles like the Chevy Volt and Nissan LEAF cut emissions by 40 percent from today’s cars. In places with cleaner grids, the benefits are larger. The opposite holds true, of course. Dirtier grids mean the benefits are lower. However, even in regions that are heavily dependent on conventional coal plants, plug-in vehicles are cleaner than conventional cars.

Plug-in vehicles get cleaner as the electricity supply gets cleaner. To maximize reductions in carbon pollution—while moving us off oil—the U.S. should continue to clean up the grid as we put plug-in vehicles on the road. Both take time but we can do these activities in parallel. Plug-in vehicles will not replace the on-road fleet of vehicle overnight. Even if we reach President Obama’s achievable goal of putting 1 million plug-in vehicles on the road by 2015 and continue to ramp up, electric vehicles will be less than 10 percent of the on-road fleet in 2025. Because cars last a long time, it can take roughly 15 years for new technologies to penetrate the entire on-road fleet. For plug-in vehicles the timeline may be even longer because switching to electric-drive is a big step for consumers away from the petroleum internal combustion engine vehicles that have been around for 100 years.

Plug-in vehicle incentives and other targeted government policies can play an important role in ensuring that we one day reach the of goal truly green car fleet. Incentives help drive early volumes that spur battery and vehicle system innovation and cut costs.

Third, advanced biofuels can provide significant environmental benefits and we should shift our policies to promote these truly sustainable fuels. If done right, biofuels could cut carbon pollution dramatically. According to EPA, reductions of 60 percent or more compared to gasoline are achievable. My NRDC colleagues Nathanael Greene and Sasha Lyutse have commented extensively on ways to put biofuels on a green path including the adoption of a Green Biofuels Tax Credit that would replace supports on established corn ethanol.

Analogous to vehicles, the fuels market should be driven by a technology-neutral performance standard such as the low carbon fuel standard (LCFS) that exists in California and is in development by 11 states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region. The standard establishes a gradual trajectory to shift from petroleum transportation fuels to low carbon alternatives such as advanced biofuels and electricity.

In many ways, we are on the right road to greening our vehicles. We are improving vehicle standards and we know many of the policy tools that can move our transportation system away from oil to a cleaner, more diversified mix of fuels. It’s time to shift the policies into high gear. Let’s put American ingenuity to work by raising fuel economy to 60 mpg and setting national performance standards that promote low-carbon fuels. We can all benefit from more green choices.