The Auto Industry Needs To Keep Its Word On Fuel Economy Standards

The same industry players who agreed to the standards are now working to roll them back.
10/06/2017 08:38 am ET Updated Oct 06, 2017
Roberto Machado Noa via Getty Images

In 2012, the major automakers told Americans that they had agreed with the Obama administration on new fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks. Under this agreement, which the automakers enthusiastically endorsed at the time, vehicles will average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. The Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard, or CAFE standard, will reduce U.S. oil consumption by more than 2 million barrels a day and greenhouse gas emissions by 6 billion metric tons. It will also save American families an average of $8,000 — as much as a dollar per gallon of gas — over the lifetime of a vehicle purchased in 2025.

The Auto Alliance, which represents automakers like Ford, General Motors, Toyota, and Volvo, embraced the efficiency rule. “By aligning Federal and state requirements and providing manufacturers with long-term regulatory certainty and compliance flexibility,” the group said, “the standards encourage investments in clean, innovative technologies that will benefit families, promote U.S. leadership in the automotive sector, and curb pollution.” As General Motors’ executive director for communications Greg Martin put it, “Customers want higher fuel efficiency in their cars and trucks, and GM is going to give it to them.” Americans counted on that promise.

So why is the same set of industry players now working hand in hand with EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to weaken the standards they supported just four years ago? A mid-term review, based in science and public input, found that the automakers already have technology to meet the new standard and that the rules will save customers money. But following the election of Donald Trump, the Auto Alliance claimed that EPA’s decision to maintain the very standards the automakers previously backed was an “extraordinary and premature rush to judgment.” The Auto Alliance has a long history of opposing standards that benefit the public, including seat belts, air bags, and catalytic converters. Now it sees in the industry-friendly Trump administration a tempting chance to dodge safety regulations and save on compliance costs.

Shortly after Pruitt took office, the car manufacturers asked him to revisit the standard. Pruitt, who as Oklahoma Attorney General was notoriously compliant to industry, gladly complied.

Toyota pioneered the green car market with the introduction of the Prius. Volvo recently won plaudits for its announcement that, beginning in 2019, every new car it designs will have an electric engine. Ford and GM condemned President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement and reaffirmed their commitment to addressing climate change. “We believe climate change is real,” asserted Ford, “and remain deeply committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in our vehicles and our facilities.” “GM will not waver from our commitment to the environment,” declared a General Motors press release.

“We want cleaner air and to preserve our planet for future generations,” wrote GM CEO Mary Barra just this week, “which is why today’s cars are more fuel-efficient.”

Yet all these companies appear to back their trade association’s push to roll back the CAFE standard, the place where they can actually make a difference they claim to seek.

Before they go all in on another Pruitt environmental roll-back, perhaps the industry should take a closer look at the long-term consequences. An independent analysis by the non-profit organization CERES found that sector-wide fuel economy standards provide automakers and their suppliers the certainty needed to increase investment in cleaner technologies like electric vehicles and greater fuel efficiency, which are necessary for the long-term health of the industry.

There are serious implications: increased fuel efficiency saves drivers money, reduces our dependence on foreign oil, and cuts the carbon pollution that is driving global climate change. But there’s a simpler principle, too: keep your word. The automakers willingly told the American public they would compete for car buyers’ business by delivering quality, energy-efficient vehicles. They should keep their word.

CONVERSATIONS