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Obama's lead on fuel economy, Ray LaHood, will sort the politics and the policy in this high stakes issue.

Obama's lead on fuel economy, Ray LaHood, will sort politics from policy in this high stakes issue.

Facing a Monday deadline for written comments to the Environmental Protection Agency regarding its proposal for the first national greenhouse gas reporting rule, lobbying efforts by special interest groups are intensifying. Tied up in this issue is whether EPA will grant a waiver that will allow California and 13 states to bypass federal fuel economy regulations. Since this California coalition accounts for 40% of the new vehicles sold in the U.S., the stakes are high for automakers, environmentalists and new car buyers alike. EPA will hold public hearings on April 6 and 7, and it says it will consider written comments submitted with the same weight as the oral arguments presented.

In question are the types of vehicles you will be allowed to buy, where you can buy them, and maybe even how much more they will cost. Critics say if the waiver is granted, some vehicles won’t be available in the stricter states, though consumers might buy them elsewhere and move them into banned areas, as many California dealers believe will happen, providing a boon for dealers in Oregon and Nevada. The exemptions for wealthy buyers in the California bill are also troubling. Also affected will be auto industry jobs, and the location of those jobs —  here or overseas — in the midst of an economic collapse. 

The communications being sent out of Washington are typical of the now almost universal approach to such conflicts. One e-mail exhortation begins simply enough saying that only days remain “for citizens to demand that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allow states to legally regulate global warming pollution from cars. 

 “At UCS (Union of Concerned Scientists) we are doing everything we can right now to ensure the voices of tens of thousands of concerned citizens are heard in Washington. If you care about a healthy environment and want more consumer choices for clean cars, this is your chance to make a real difference,” says Michelle Robinson, Director, Clean Vehicles Program. 

Next is the usual request for money to keep fighting the good fight:

“It is because of UCS supporters like you that we have come this far. Now we must ensure clean car standards become a reality. Help us with our final push toward the deadline by making a special tax-deductible donation today.

 “This decision is not only key to state plans to curb global warming pollution, but also represents a major step forward in our work to implement national solutions to the problem of climate change. The stakes could not be higher.

“Leading up to this deadline, UCS has been pulling out all the stops to counter automakers’ attempts to undermine this process. We must ensure that the EPA, Congress, and state governments are guided by sound science-not automaker spin.”

clickherebutton-v32Another, opposite plea on my computer screen says, “The finalization of the federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for model year 2011 is an important first step. It is now important that the Department of Transportation provide automakers with the certainty and consistency needed by setting standards for MY 2012 and beyond. 

“We are hopeful that the Obama Administration can find ways to bridge state and federal concerns, and move all stakeholders towards an aggressive, national, fuel economy/greenhouse gas emissions program administered by the federal government.

“Our goal is to bring cleaner, safer and more fuel-efficient vehicles to the market as quickly as possible. We’re proud of what we’ve already accomplished and will continue to work hard on new innovations that will help us meet future fuel economy standards,” says Dave McCurdy, President and CEO, Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

Well, my head is spinning, Michelle, though not from automakers. It’s from the whole cycle of:

  • issue presented as crisis
  • raise money from true believers
  • spend it spinning the crisis and lobbying
  • repeat this money burning cycle

And Dave, I’m still chuckling over the auto industries’ Damascus Road conversion to higher fuel economy after blocking it for decades. Not that the makers had a change of heart —  they had no choice as voters revolting over oil prices awakened Congress, and it became apparent that imported oil is a costly, national security issue. The embracing of national standards occurred only after clean air advocates gave up getting changes in Washington, and did an end run to your roadblock by going to sympathetic states.

This is our messy “paid speech” democracy in action – and it’s decidedly not free speech. No wonder there are a growing number of independent voters who are sick of the intransigence, pettiness and lobbying by the entire cast of tawdry characters along the Potomac; correction, they are not cheap at all, lobbyists are bloody expensive, and we as a society can no longer afford them. But that’s a sideshow, and one that needs to be addressed elsewhere. 

The core issue remains how do we effectively move forward on increasing fuel economy after ignoring it since the Carter administration? 

Is it really necessary to have ongoing battles with both sides purportedly seeking the same goals? The only question now that Congress has finally enacted the first increase in fuel economy standards since 1975 is whether to allow multiple sets of rules, federal and states or to go forward with the federal law enacted in 2007. 

The federal 2011 model year standard of 27.3 mpg for new vehicles just published is slightly higher than the CARB proposal. Automakers say that removes the need for a complicated independent CARB regulation. The UCS says the methodology is flawed and it wasn’t set high enough. The Obama Administration is clearly moving in a more environmentally friendly direction than Bush did during his eight years, but it’s not clear if it will allow secession to occur. 

The Alliance is an association of 11 vehicle manufacturers including BMW Group, Chrysler LLC, Ford Motor, General Motors, Jaguar Land Rover, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz USA, Mitsubishi Motors, Porsche, Toyota and Volkswagen. So it clearly represents big money auto interests. However, that doesn’t mean that the makers by now embracing and adhering to federal standards, no matter how insincere past behavior, won’t help the clean air cause. 

The UCS is a science-based, nonprofit group that provides independent research to change government policy and corporate practices. It began at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1969, and has grown more than 250,000 citizens and scientists. It was instrumental in getting the California green house gas initiative passed and extended to other states. And its independent studies are valuable for the debating points they raise. It helps keep automakers honest. 

So it looks to me that UCS is confident that it can eventually force state legislatures and get increasing fuel standards at higher levels than they can get federally. Given years of inaction and manipulation by the industry of the U.S. Congress, I understand that view. A closer look at the regulation involved, however, might indicate that this failed CAFE past is over. 

The Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) in 2007 amended the Energy Policy and Conservation Act (EPCA) by mandating that the model year (MY) 2011-2020 CAFE standards be set sufficiently high to ensure that the industry-wide average of all new passenger cars and light trucks, combined, is not less than 35 miles per gallon by 2020. This is a minimum requirement, since NHTSA must set standards at the maximum feasible level in each model year. NHTSA will determine whether that additional requirement calls for establishing standards that reach the 35 mpg goal earlier than 2020. (My emphasis

I ultimately don’t agree with the UCS view that separate state and federal standards are needed. Looking at the language Congress used in EISA, the intent is clear to me. Let’s go with the federal law and enforce its intent. I don’t trust the automaker’s to do what’s necessary without groups like the UCS contributing to the ongoing debate.

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