'Clean car' players look to road ahead

While the two agencies responsible for the first-ever joint "clean car" rule celebrated the product of months of exhausting work, others already had their eye on what's next.

Congress's chief auditor, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, issued a report yesterday urging a formal marriage between U.S. EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to work jointly on future vehicle greenhouse gas emissions and fuel economy standards. The new rules set yesterday will expire after model year 2016.

The agencies agreed to develop and harmonize the standards last year in a deal with California, which agreed to hold back its own regulation plans, and automakers, which agreed to stop suing. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers praised the process yesterday because it avoided a "piecemeal, fragmented policy from multiple government agencies with different mechanisms, different objectives, different timelines."

But GAO said there were no legal guarantees that this would work in the future. Furthermore, it said the agencies did not document or publish their process of working together on the rule over the last year. It said they should do this now, as well as sign a memo that would guarantee future collaboration. The agencies generally agreed with GAO's recommendations.

Already, California, the only state with independent authority to set vehicle tailpipe emissions rules, is holding hearings to set new standards for vehicles produced from 2017 until at least 2020 and possibly even longer, according to California Air Resources Board spokesman Stanley Young. It is looking to bring a regulation before the board this year, he said.


Automakers keen to drive on

A key congressman said no time should be wasted to harmonize federal policy with these efforts. "I encourage you to build upon this excellent beginning, and quickly embark on the development of a new set of federal standards for model years 2017 and beyond," Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) wrote in a letter to President Obama yesterday. As chairman of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, he had requested that GAO produce the report.

The auto industry agreed that the administration should move immediately on the next phase. "Now that we have a road map through 2016, we don't want to run into a dead end in 2017," said Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the manufacturers' alliance.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said she was proud of the collaborative process and said it "absolutely" could be a model for future partnerships.

But not next week. "Our people have been working 24/7 to get this rule out. Anything post-2016 will come after people get maybe a good week of sleep," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

NHTSA's staff are especially likely to be sleep-deprived. For six years through 2001, Congress blocked the agency from using any funds to work on fuel economy standards. The agency lost staff and time, and has still not fully recovered, the GAO found.

That could be a particular problem in guaranteeing that manufacturers meet the new standards.

Two agencies work in tandem

The new national target -- equivalent to a nationwide fleet average of 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016 -- is tied to a complex and relatively new formula that sets individual fuel economy targets for each manufacturer based on the size of the car models it produces.

In the regulation, every class of car or light truck will have efficiency targets. But bigger cars or trucks don't have to be as efficient as compact, two-door models, a move that increases safety, preserves consumer choices and ensures that even the biggest SUVs don't get a free pass.

As a result, the 35.5 mpg target and total fuel saving calculations are based on projections of what manufacturers predict is the mix of vehicles they will produce and sell over the next five years.

"While NHTSA and EPA expect benefits from adopting a standard based on vehicle size, neither standard has a mechanism to ensure that a specific national target is being met," GAO wrote.

One way to show whether the new system works or to decide if changes are needed is to audit past data. NHTSA first made the change to a "vehicle footprint" system in a fuel economy standard for light trucks that runs from 2008 to 2011. GAO said the agency should now look back and audit the results, both whether the targets were met and whether cost and technology projections were borne out.

But given the pressure to right away turn to post-2016 rules, NHTSA told GAO it does not have the resources to conduct this audit and has no plans to do so.

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