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Five Dirty Little Secrets Behind the U.S. New Vehicle Mileage Rules

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More fuel-efficient cars and trucks are critical to warding off the worst effects of climate change. So if you breathed a sigh of relief when you heard that the Obama administration finalized new gas mileage and carbon pollution standards for cars and trucks this week, you're not alone.

Average fuel efficiency of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 sounds pretty good, right? Surely such an aggressive mandate means that over the long run, the nation's fleet of cars and trucks will use less oil and spew less carbon than today, and Detroit's gas guzzler addiction will be just a bad memory.

Not so fast. If you read the fine print, you'll learn that things are not quite as green and clean as they seem. Let's uncover five dirty little secrets of the new mileage rules. Hint: Detroit was in on the deal from the start.

Secret #1: Not really 54.5 mgp. That number sounds good, but it's a fiction. About 5 mpg come from an air conditioning "credit" earned for stopping leaks of coolants with ultra-high warming effects. That lowers carbon emissions from the coolants -- which really should be banned outright -- but does nothing to increase mileage.

About another 3 mpg probably won't materialize because manufacturers will exploit other credits and "flexibilities" hidden like Easter eggs in the regulatory weeds. "Flexibilities" include, for example, the right to pay a penalty instead of meeting a standard. So make that about 47 mpg.

And once we're talking about real-world fuel efficiency -- what you and I achieve when we actually drive real cars on real roads -- the 2025 fleet will really clock in at mileage rates 20 percent lower than EPA's targets.

Secret #2: No mandate. Whatever the "standard" is, it's just a guess and not a mandate. Each car and truck model comes with its own mileage requirement, and every manufacturer must meet only whatever average standard correlates to the mix of vehicles it wants to build. So if Chrysler builds more Town and Country Minivans (more below on why that's a good bet), Chrysler can lower its average fuel efficiency requirement. Multiply that effect across the industry and the 2025 national average may look nothing like 47 mpg.

This problem could easily be fixed by setting a backstop -- a minimum mileage number manufacturers must meet regardless of fleet mix. But there is no backstop.

Secret #3: More total carbon pollution and oil consumption. Forty-seven mpg is much better than current standards, so surely we'll use less oil and reduce pollution? Well, no. By 2025 and thereafter millions more Americans will drive millions more cars and trucks. Over the long run, these additional "vehicle miles traveled" will more than offset the improvements the standards bring, and we'll be using more oil and pumping out more carbon. True - without the standards it would be far worse. But "less bad" isn't what we're aiming for. To avoid heating the planet by more than 2 degrees Celsius, we must significantly reduce total carbon emissions by the end of this decade and not let it go up thereafter.

It doesn't have to be this way. Vehicles are the low-hanging fruit in the fight against carbon from the transportation sector. Their emissions amount to about 19 percent of total U.S. carbon emissions; decreasing these has the greatest short-to mid-term effect. The administration analyzed an alternative standard, at 69 mpg, that would have achieved oil savings and carbon reductions over the long term. The technology to reach 60-plus mpg exists today or is on the drawing board, and the additional costs would have been more than offset by savings in gasoline purchases alone, never mind counting any environmental benefits.

Secret #4: More SUVs and trucks. How many single drivers pull up for lattes in all-terrain, heavy-duty SUVs made for eight people? Slick marketing may have made gas-guzzlers sexy, but the situation was exacerbated by years of mileage rules that favored SUVs and trucks, creating what's known as the SUV loophole.

The new standards exacerbate the SUV loophole, rewarding SUVs and trucks with exemptions, credits, and other give-aways. Incredibly, efficiency requirements are up to one-third less stringent for these vehicles than for cars during the earlier years covered by the rule. Because automakers will install the fewest efficiency upgrades in the least efficient vehicles, the efficiency gap between them and lighter cars will get worse. And, because this makes them cheaper to build and more profitable, it's a good bet that Detroit will sell a lot of them.

Secret #5: No innovation incentive. The bottom line is that these standards are undemanding. They require no technical leap or cutting-edge inventions, and they will not make the U.S. more competitive in world markets. At 47 mpg by 2025, we'll be behind the European Union, Japan and China: Five years earlier, in 2020, they'll have reached 64.8 mpg, 55.1 mpg, and 50.1 mpg, respectively.

The U.S. standards are overwhelmingly based on incremental improvements of technologies already in existence. New developments such as fuel cell technology are encouraged by means of credits, but getting those credits is completely voluntary. In the mean time, Honda, Toyota and Mercedes already plan to commercialize fuel cell vehicles within a few years.

When President Kennedy called for the U.S. to reach the moon, it took us eight years to invent, build and use the rockets that got us there. By comparison, the technological ambition behind the 2025 mileage standards is like spending 13 years to put a new coat of asphalt on the launch pad.

To protect our planet, we've got to do much better.

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