Are Obama's Fuel Efficiency Standards Strict Enough?

| Tue May 19, 2009 2:52 PM EDT

President Obama really is a nice guy. When he announced Tuesday that federal and state governments and environmental groups had come to a "historic agreement" with the auto industry to increase average fuel economy to 35.5 MPG by 2016, he granted the automakers a huge PR favor: The industry has been fighting these rules for years; they only capitulated now because they had a gun to their heads.

"The new administration was in a position to say [to the auto companies] 'you have to accept this,'" Dan Becker of the Safe Climate Campaign told me. "They realized that and they caved. This is auto mechanics, not rocket science, and they can do that."

Even as the news leaked that Obama would announce tougher fuel efficiency standards, the auto industry was still embroiled in lawsuits, most notably with the State of California, over states' efforts to cut greenhouse gasses. But these days, Detroit doesn't have the same political sway in Washington that it used to, even compared to just a few years ago, when the Bush administration denied California's attempt to implement its strict MPG rules.

Obama's new rules effectively end that litigation, and are a "huge stick in the eye to polluters, who "did everything they could to stop this from happening," says Greenpeace's Kert Davies. The auto industry had argued that individual states like California do not have the power to govern fuel economy, but Obama mooted that argument by directing the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation to write regulations, which they will have the power to enforce.

Becker told me the rules themselves don't go far enough, but are "a good first step" and leave an opportunity for improvement in 2017, when they are set to expire. (Becker also says he expects officials in California to take the lead on drafting post-2016 standards and release their plan within a year.) By then, the White House says we will have saved 900 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere—the equivalent of "taking 177 million cars off the road."

Davies says hasn't yet run any calculations accounting for the new 35.5 MPG standard, but he told me he thinks "we're still behind the curve" in comparison to other nations when it comes to curbing tailpipe emissions: "Even China has better fuel economy targets than we do."

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