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Muzzling the Guzzle
Government Unveils Timetable for Fuel Economy Standards

By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Department of Transportation yesterday proposed a timetable for auto manufacturers to meet landmark new fuel economy standards, calling the schedule "historically ambitious yet achievable."

Under the regulations, the overall fleet of new vehicles, including cars and light trucks, would be required to average 25.3 miles per gallon in 2010 and reach 31.6 miles per gallon by 2015, an increase of 4.5 percent each year. Such standards would save about 55 billion gallons of fuel over the life of the vehicles affected and slash $100 billion in gas costs for consumers, according to figures from the department.

"What we were looking for was a balance between affordability and achieving the right levels of fuel economy," Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said yesterday at a news conference. "I think we got an aggressive but achievable standard."

Yesterday's proposal set increasing annual targets for the first five years. The standards reflect the average fuel efficiency of an automaker's fleet, rather than for individual models. Light trucks would have to average 23.5 miles per gallon by 2010 and 28.6 by 2015, and cars would have to average 27.5 by 2010 and 35.7 by 2015. Manufacturers will be able to receive credits for exceeding the efficiency targets and trade them between companies.

The timetable is a first step toward complying with the wide-ranging federal energy bill passed in December and aimed at reducing the United States' reliance on foreign oil and slowing global warming.

The legislation's centerpiece was a boost in the minimum fuel-efficiency standard to 35 miles per gallon by 2020 for new auto fleets.

The Transportation Department also said the regulation preempts efforts under way in California and 17 other states, including Maryland, to implement their own legislation limiting tailpipe emissions. California has been battling the Transportation Department over a state law requiring a 30 percent reduction in emissions standards from motor vehicles by 2016, which translates into 36 miles per gallon.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) criticized the proposal's preemption of state law. However, she praised the standards as an important move in fighting climate change. Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Energy and Global Warming, called the timetable "aggressive" and said it showed faith in the auto industry's willingness to respond to climate change.

"American consumers want and deserve more efficient vehicles, and American ingenuity and technology can clearly get us there," he said.

Several activist groups credited the administration for requiring that most of the progress be made in the first five years, rather than back-loading the schedule. But the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental nonprofit group, raised concerns that the increase in annual targets tapers off to less than 1 mile per gallon in the final years.

"What we have today is a horse charging out of the gate that pulls up lame a third of the way around the track," said Jim Kliesch, senior engineer in the group's clean vehicles program. "We could be a couple of miles per gallon higher than we are right now."

According to an analysis by the group, new cars and trucks could meet a standard of 32.5 miles per gallon by 2015 and 39 miles per gallon by 2020 using conventional technology. When hybrid vehicles are included, the group found that the auto fleet could hit 42 miles per gallon.

The nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund called the fuel efficiency standards a positive step but only one part of the fight against global warming, which it said should include reducing emissions.

"If Americans really expect to do something about the joint problems of global warming and energy security . . . then we need to do a lot more than promulgate higher [fuel efficiency] standards, as important as that has been," said John DeCicco, senior fellow for automotive policy at the fund.

An auto industry trade group said yesterday that meeting the timetable will present an enormous challenge, and the Transportation Department estimated it will cost manufacturers $47 billion to comply.

"We acknowledge that we have a responsibility to our customers to improve fuel efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emission from new automobiles," said Charles Territo, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. "We're committed to being part of the solution."

Privately, one auto official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the standards, said the industry was surprised by the pace of the increases in fuel efficiency.

He said automakers had planned for more steady increases and begun to develop products for coming years around that assumption.

"It's definitely more aggressive and a quicker climb than we had expected," he said.

The proposed regulations must undergo a 60-day comment period. Transportation officials said they expect to finalize the rules by the end of the year.

Still, some experts said federal fuel efficiency standards will have less impact on the industry than consumer demand.

As the price of gas continues to rise, car buyers are looking for ways to stretch their dollars further. The Toyota Prius hybrid, for example, captured 1.5 percent of the auto market last month, compared with about 0.1 percent in March 2002, according to Edmunds.com. Meanwhile, market share of the Toyota Camry has remained stable: up to 2.3 percent last month, from 2.2 percent in March 2002.

"These changes [in fuel efficiency standards], let's face it, they're very slight. They're going to take a very long time to come in," said Phil Reed, consumer advice editor at Edmunds.com. "The consumers are way ahead. They want fuel efficient vehicles now."

Staff writer Steven Mufson contributed to this report.

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