US President Barack Obama announced new automobile standards on Wednesday, unveiling an agreement with automakers that would very nearly double the average fuel efficiency of today’s vehicles by 2025.
The agreement advances Obama’s signature achievement in the domestic energy arena: brokering an historic truce among automakers, the state of California and the federal government on regulations to curb fuel consumption – and greenhouse gas emissions – from the automobile sector (background here and here). The 2009 truce boosted the requirements by roughly 30 percent to 35 miles per gallon (nearly 15 kilometres per litre) by 2016, and today’s announcement extends that requirement to 54.5 miles per gallon (more than 23 kilometres per litre) by 2025 (LA Times, The Guardian).
“This agreement on fuel standards represents the single most important step we’ve ever taken as a nation to reduce our dependence on foreign oil,” Obama said, flanked by industry and union officials in Washington.
The White House estimates that consumers could save around $8,200 in fuel costs over the life of a car purchased in 2025 compared to 2010. The agreement would reduce oil consumption by 2.2 million barrels per day by 2025, ramping up to more than 4 million barrels per day in subsequent years. That would represent a 21 percent reduction compared to the more than 19 million barrels per day that the United States burned through in 2010. White House figures indicate that carbon dioxide emissions would decrease by 6 billion tonnes over the lift of the program, which is on par with the annual emissions for the entire country in recent years.
The 2009 agreement resolved a longstanding dispute between the state of California and the US Environmental Protection Agency under George W. Bush. Only the federal government can regulate fuel economy, but California had used its unique authority under the Clean Air Act to propose the first greenhouse gas standards for vehicles in 2004. That is just one component in a broader climate programme (recently documented in Nature) that California has pioneered in the absence of federal action on global warming.
Automakers sued, and the EPA supported them by denying a waiver that the California needed to proceed with the regulations. Entering office in the midst of an economic crisis that had brought automakers to their knees, Obama was able to push through a deal that essentially extended the California standards to the entire nation while creating separate but coordinated standards for fuel efficiency and greenhouse gases. What the automakers got was the kind of regulatory certainty and uniformity that they had always said they wanted (as well as government support during their darkest hours).
Although environmentalists generally praised today’s agreement, some raised concerns about potential loopholes. At the same time, a few industry officials questioned whether it would be possible to meet the requirements (Reuters). But as this graph from the International Council on Clean Transportation makes clear, companies selling cars in the United States still have a ways to go to catch up with the rest of the world let alone blaze new trails.
One thing is fairly clear: America’s love affair with mammoth sport utility vehicles will be tested in the years to come.