Policy Solutions, Fuel Economy and Tailpipe Greenhouse Gas Standards

Policy Solutions, Fuel Economy and Tailpipe Greenhouse Gas Standards

When the United States was considering legislation to save oil more than three decades ago, a Ford Motor Co. official testified against the bill before Congress.

The Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, which have come to be known as CAFE, would result, she said, “in a Ford product line consisting of either all sub-Pinto-sized vehicles or some mix of vehicles ranging from a sub-sub-compact to perhaps a Maverick.”

Her warning notwithstanding, Congress put the standards into effect in 1975. One need not look beyond the nearest intersection to see how wrong she was.

For decades, the auto industry balked at voluntarily improving the fuel economy of its cars and light trucks. As a result, the United States continues to lag behind other nations in reducing the consumption of oil and saving money at the gas pump.

Over the nearly 40 years since Congress first began work on auto mileage, experience has shown that government measures are necessary to require the industry to make continuous improvements in fuel economy.
Today, two laws are the primary drivers in the effort to bring higher fuel economy to the nation’s roads and highways, and to produce lower greenhouse gas emissions from tailpipes. These are the Corporate Average Fuel Economy law and California’s Clean Car standards.

Federal Fuel Economy Standards

Automakers must meet Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards that set average mileage requirements each year for new cars and light trucks. Congress passed these standards in 1975 in response to the OPEC oil embargo. Under President Obama, the United States in 2012 took the biggest single step of any nation to fight global warming, dramatically strengthening the mileage-and-emissions standards. Under the CAFE rules and the Clean Air Act, in barely a dozen years we will double fleet-wide fuel economy from 27.5 miles per gallon to 54.5 miles per gallon for passenger vehicles, helping protect American consumers from high gasoline prices and oil shortages.

The Road Ahead: Strengthening Federal Fuel Economy

The new fuel economy standards establish a strong floor. But there is sufficient cost-effective technology to push fleet-wide fuel economy standards beyond the 54.5-miles-per-gallon average set for 2025–if the auto industry boosts its production of hybrid-electric vehicles and all-electric vehicles, and makes sensible changes to the weight and acceleration speeds of vehicles.

Setting aggressive fuel economy standards delivers real benefits. Pursuing the  stronger path on which the Obama administration has embarked will cut our use of gasoline for cars and light trucks in half by 2025, and halve greenhouse gas emissions too. Ensuring that fuel economy standards continue to increase is critically important to helping the country meet its energy security goals and curb global warming. Having helped win the new federal greenhouse gas tailpipe standards, the Safe Climate Campaign is committed to making sure the automakers live by the new rules.

A Critical Historic Note

The Clean Air Act allows California to set its own standards. However, the law requires the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to grant the state a waiver before it can implement the tougher rules. Although EPA had never denied California’s waiver requests throughout the program, the George W. Bush administration rejected it. Arguing that the Clean Air Act did not recognize carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as pollutants, the administration blocked California’s ability to set the standards. California and other states that had adopted its law contested this view in court, culminating in the landmark Supreme Court decision, Massachusetts v. EPA. This decision held that greenhouse gases threaten public health and welfare and should therefore be covered under the Clean Air Act. It also directed the EPA to adequately address this issue and set new regulations if necessary.

The auto industry filed multiple lawsuits challenging the clean car standards that California and other states have sought to implement. The industry argued that these rules set fuel economy standards and are therefore preempted by federal law. All three courts that considered the challenges rejected the auto industry’s arguments.


To read about the responsibilities of the automobile industry, click here.