Higher Fuel Economy for 1 Year Gives Administration Opportunity to Set the Next 5 Years Right

Today, the Obama Administration finalized fuel economy standards for model year 2011 cars and light trucks, which include SUVs, minivans, and pickups. This is a step in a process that could make the vehicles we drive each day dramatically cleaner. The big step comes with setting greenhouse gas and CAFE standards for model years 2012-2016, and the Administration has a huge opportunity to do them right.

In January, President Obama acknowledged deficiencies in the fuel economy proposal left over from the Bush administration for model years 2011 through 2015. The President requested finalization of just 2011--he had to meet a statutory deadline to give automakers at least 18 months of lead time before MY2011 production starts in October 2010--and he called for a thorough review of the process for setting future year standards.

NHTSA stated its commitment to a thorough review in today's final rule:

The deferral of action on the CAFE standards for the years after MY 2011 provides the agency with an opportunity to review its approach to CAFE standard setting, including its methodologies, economic and technological inputs, and decisionmaking criteria. It is reasonable to anticipate that this process may lead to changes, given the further review and analysis that will be conducted pursuant to the President's request, and given the steady and potentially substantial evolution in technical and policy factors relevant to the next CAFE rulemaking. These factors include, but are not limited to, energy and climate change needs and policy choices regarding goals and approaches to achieving them, developments in domestic legislation and international negotiations regarding those goals and approaches, the financial health of the industry, technologies for reducing fuel consumption, fuel prices, and climate change science and damage evaluation.

That process will take NHTSA another year or more.  Before that, however, there are two other important steps the Administration needs to take.  First, the Administration needs to grant California the right to enforce its greenhouse gas emission standards, a decision due before the end of June. Second, the Administration needs to make the long-overdue determination that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare, pursuant to the Supreme Court's landmark global warming ruling of April 2007, and then to set federal greenhouse gas standards that equal or exceed California's.

Cost-effective technologies are available to meet the more stringent levels  set by California, and more aggressive national GHG and mileage standards will result in greater oil savings and reductions in global warming pollution then simply reaching the Congressional minimum of 35 mpg in 2020. Recent analysis by NRDC's Roland Hwang shows that a national implementation of the California's standard would be equivalent to CAFE at 33.7 mpg in 2015, which would place the US on a trajectory to far surpass 35 mpg in 2020.  

As I've said before, the opportunity is here for putting the transportation sector on a road to dramatically cleaner and less oil dependent future. The next moves by the Administration really count.