Commentary

Draft Report Suggests EPA Feds May Waver On 54.5 MPG Target

A more than 1,000-page draft report issued by federal regulators yesterday finds that automakers are falling short of reaching the fleet-wide average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 specified as a target by the Obama Administration in 2012, and they’re blaming it on the customer. 

“The shift could slightly undercut one of Obama’s signature climate initiatives, trimming the greenhouse gas benefits as cheaper-than-expected oil prices — and large ad campaigns — have lured car buyers toward bigger vehicles than anticipated,” writes Steven Mufson for the Washington Post

The report by the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the California Air Resources Board “cited research that dramatically lower gas prices are spurring purchases of SUVs and pickups, making the mileage targets harder to meet. That could raise questions about the scope and feasibility of the targets, a key component of President Barack Obama’s climate-change agenda,” Amy Harder and Gautham Nagesh  write in the Wall Street Journal.

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“The two agencies said that based on current trends, the average vehicle in 2025 would consume between 50 and 52.6 mpg. That measurement, used by the Transportation Department, would translate into a real world fuel economy of 36 mpg,” Mufson reports.

“The rules for 2022 to 2025 will not be changed until a mid-term review is completed in 2018, despite the finding that automakers may miss the final fuel efficiency mark,” Keith Laing writes for the  Detroit News.

The report also “shows that automakers are developing far more technologies to improve fuel economy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, at similar or lower costs, than we thought possible just a few years ago,” says Janet McCabe, acting assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, Laing reports. “Mark Rosekind, administrator the NHTSA agreed, saying, ‘automakers have already implemented new technologies that are saving American drivers money and cut national fuel consumption and carbon emissions today.’”

“The government’s required fuel economy standard today is a fleetwide average of 35.5 miles per gallon, which, based on various formulas, translates to an approximate window sticker average of 27 mpg,” the WSJ reports. “Gasoline prices across the U.S. have dropped nearly 40% since the 2025 target was laid out in August 2012. The national average price for a gallon of gas is hovering around $2.25.”

And “When Gas Is Cheap, Hybrids, Electric Vehicles Sit,” as a Forbes headline put it last year. And gas-guzzlers move, as this cartoon suggests.

“The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers has been pressing for a loosening of the standards, while experts concerned about climate change have sought to protect the gains Obama promised in what was seen as one of his biggest steps to contain greenhouse gas emissions while bolstering U.S. energy security,” the WP’s Mufson writes.

“Third-party observers were mixed in their reaction — happy that automakers and consumers were moving in the right direction, but concerned that current success would limit future ambitions,” the Los Angeles Times’ Charles Fleming reports. “Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign Center for Auto Safety, warned that forward motion in fuel economy must not be used by the federal government as a reason to weaken its demand that automakers hit a proposed goal of a 54.5 miles per gallon.” 

Writing for Jalopnik, Kristen Lee wonders why regulators might budge on regulations that seemed ironclad just a year ago. 

“Failure to comply with the mileage restrictions resulted in CAFE fines of $5.50 for each tenth of a mile below the required fuel efficiency standard multiplied for each vehicle the company sold in that model year, as NHTSA explains on their background of CAFE, Lee points out above a summary of some of the fines published by NHTSA in 2014.

“As you can see,” she writes, “a lot of money was made in fines” — such as $16 million from Mercedes Benz of North America in 2011 and more than $11 million from Jaguar Land Rover NA in the same period.

But a senior administration official tells The Hill’s Timothy Cama that “54.5 isn’t a standard, never was a standard and isn’t a standard now. 54.5 is what we predicted, in 2012, the fleet-wide average could get to, based on assumptions that were live back then about the mix of the fleet. That depended a lot on a variety of factors, including gasoline prices. We’re recognizing the fact that gasoline prices are lower now.”

And auto lobbyists’ voices, backed by the chorus of what people are buying, will be louder.

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