Monday, October 17, 2011

Fuel Economy Advocates Fight Back in CAFE Probe

Published October 17, 2011

Rep. Darrell Issa

Rep. Darrell Issa

Last week, California congressman Darrel Issa opened his committee's investigation into recently announced Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards leading into 2025, when carmakers will be forced to average an equivalent of 54.5 mpg across their light-duty lineups. “I am concerned about the negative impact these standards could have on the safety of automobiles, the possibility that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration acted outside the scope of congressionally delegated authority and the lack of transparency in the process leading up to the agreement,” Issa wrote [PDF] in a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson last month.

The congressman and many of his Republican colleagues have been critical of the White House and EPA in their efforts to raise the fuel economy of American cars and of so-called “green jobs” investments like the Department of Energy's Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing program, which will dole out $25 billion in low-cost loans to clean vehicle manufacturers and their suppliers.

"Up until now, consumers have been either ignored or misrepresented," said Edmunds CEO Jeremy Anwyl in his testimony to the House Oversight Committee. "At the end of the day, they are the ones who will be asked to buy and drive the vehicles our government is potentially demanding the car companies build."

But committee members were painted a very different picture in testimony last week from supporters of the mandate, including several NHTSA and EPA officials.

“The combined savings of the first and second round of light-duty standards over the lifetime of 2012 to 2025 vehicles will save drivers $1.7 trillion in fuel cost, reduce oil dependency by 12 billion barrels of oil, and cut heat-trapping pollution that drives global warming by approximately 6 billion metric tons,” said the Natural Resources Defense Council's Roland Hwang. “By 2030, the new agreement will provide the equivalent of a $330 tax rebate to every American household.”

Government officials also said that charges that the new standards would reduce vehicle size and make cars sold in the United States less safe, were unfounded. “There is a feasible technology path that the industry could pursue to meet the standards that does not require unsafe levels of mass reduction," testified NHTSA Administrator David Strickland. "We absolutely will not require any manufacturer to do anything that would have a negative effect on safety." Studies have shown [PDF] that vehicle size is not necessarily a contributing factor in the seriousness of accidents, and recent evaluations of plug-in vehicles like the Nissan LEAF and Chevy Volt—whose battery packs actually work to make the cars safer by lowering their centers of gravity—seem to confirm this.

Issa and his committee will continue to probe the CAFE program for evidence that the recently bailed-out American auto industry was somehow strong-armed into agreeing to the new standards. But for the congressman to have any success in his efforts, automakers effected by the compromise would likely have to join him in protest—and there's no indication that that will happen anytime soon.

“Reducing fuel consumption and lessening the automobile’s impact on the environment is important to our business because it’s important to our country and our customers,” said GM in a statement this summer, shortly after the deal was announced. “While future fuel economy targets are ambitious, the proposed CAFE rule represents a national approach and provides regulatory certainty for our industry. Additionally, the proposed rule includes flexibility that recognizes consumer needs and potential changes in technology and economic conditions.”


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