1:34 PM EDT, August 1, 2011
Lost in all the recent furor over the federal debt-ceiling and gridlocked Washington was a major breakthrough for the Obama administration and good news for the economy, national security and environment. Thanks to an accord reached with automakers, regulators, unions and the state of California, President Barack Obama proposed vehicle fuel efficiency standards last Friday that could dramatically reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil.
The new rules call for a 54.5-miles-per-gallon fleet-wide standard for cars and light trucks by 2025 — based on a 5 percent improvement each year beginning in 2017. That could reduce the nation's fuel consumption by 40 percent — 23 billion gallons annually.
Forget drilling for East Coast off-shore oil reserves or building new pipelines to tap Canadian tar sands or other questionable policies, this is a far more effective (and sensible) way to reduce U.S. dependency on foreign oil. Altogether, the potential savings achieved by nearly doubling current fuel efficiency standards add up to what the U.S. last year imported from major suppliers Saudi Arabia and Iraq combined.
Just as importantly, the reduced consumption would yield tremendous benefits to the health and security of the country. It would mean reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 280 million metric tons and allow Americans to save $80 billion at the gas pump annually.
That Detroit actually endorses the new standards demonstrates just how far the philosophy of automakers has evolved — with or without a federal bailout. Industry executives recognize that global fuel prices aren't coming down and that consumer demand for fuel efficient vehicles is only going to rise in years to come.
No doubt the oil industry and its friends in Congress will try to derail the agreement and prevent the standards from being finalized next year. Lately, House Republicans have been going after environmental regulations, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, hammer and tong. They can argue that the new standards will raise new car prices — but that's a perspective that fails to account for the multitude of savings accrued through lower fuel consumption, cleaner air, and reduced dependency on Mideast oil.
What will be required to meet the new standards is innovation and new technology — and perhaps the sacrifice of those gas-guzzling full-size pickup trucks and SUVs that have proven so profitable to American manufacturers in the past. Hybrid and electric vehicles will likely play a bigger role in the future, but so might cleaner burning gas engines, better aerodynamics and lighter materials. All that innovation is expected to create jobs, perhaps as many as 43,000 of them in the auto industry alone.
Several vehicles on the market already meet the standard including the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf while the Toyota Prius, at an average 51 mpg in city driving, falls just short. So while the proposed standard is ambitious, it's hardly out of sight.
The impact of the regulations on U.S. climate change efforts should not be overlooked either. Cars and trucks are the second leading source of greenhouse gases in this country, and the fuel efficiency standards are expected to lower their carbon dioxide emissions by 50 percent.
Considering the failure of Congress to adopt meaningful climate change legislation (or a realistic energy policy), this is welcome news, indeed. Factoring in the EPA's recent proposal to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants, the Obama administration is poised to make real progress on climate change even if a hopelessly inefficient Congress is not.
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