The Outrage Machine is a regular opinion column by voices from the left and right on Washington and politics.
President Obama and many members of Congress support an “all of the above” national energy supply strategy that relies on power from oil, gas, nuclear and renewables.
But a vital and overlooked component of ensuring we have the power we need is energy conservation – the less we use, the less we have to buy.
But it’s a bad idea to dial back one of our most successful national energy conservation programs — the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) and global warming emissions standards — as some lawmakers have proposed.
In 2009, President Obama worked with automakers, autoworkers, state regulators, and environmental advocates to advance the first meaningful improvements to national fuel efficiency standards in decades, and the first-ever standards for climate emissions from new vehicles sold in the United States.
This national program improved a patchwork of state laws and allowed automakers to set nationwide targets for their entire fleet to comply with both CAFE and the Clean Air Act regulations. Finally, we had tough, uniform standards to increase efficiency for one of our biggest consumers of energy and sources of pollution.
The first phase of the program, ending this year, has been successful.
Automakers have adapted innovations more quickly than anticipated. They implemented technology that wasn’t even anticipated just four years ago and exceeded regulatory targets. As of last year, vehicles sold under these new standards saved consumers $12.3 million in fuel per day and avoided 29 million metric tons of global warming pollution.
Environmentalists argue that an economy-wide approach to emissions reductions, like a tax on carbon, would be preferable to industry-by-industry solutions. That may be a future strategy. But so far no other program has been as successful in reducing emissions and saving consumers money as the fuel efficiency standards.
Last week some of my colleagues on a pair of Energy and Commerce subcommittees held a hearing to attack these standards and investigate whether the next phase, beginning in 2017, should be weakened.
Their rationale? They argued that since gas prices are currently so low and consumers don’t care about buying more fuel-efficient cars, automakers will be hurt by being forced to comply.
It’s true – in many parts of the country gas prices have been almost cut in half since these standards were created.
Lower gas prices shift consumer demand away from fuel-efficient compacts and toward trucks and SUVs. But the efficiency and emissions standards anticipated that gas prices might fluctuate and were designed not to punish automakers for changes in consumer preference.
The point is to make all vehicles more efficient, not force consumers into smaller cars. Vehicles are given a fuel efficiency target based on their size, with more modest targets for larger vehicles. Each year manufacturers are given a target to hit for their entire fleet based on the number and types of vehicles they expect to sell. So when demand for SUVs rises, the annual efficiency target for an automaker that sells a lot of SUVs will be more modest.
This gives manufacturers flexibility to meet targets for their entire fleet so they can continue to provide product options for consumers who care less about efficiency, while still making efficiency gains across the board.
Under these strong standards, automakers will also be better prepared to offer the efficient options their customers will demand when the price of gas inevitably rises. And we know that gas prices are going to rise again — through gradual market changes or a global shock — and American consumers will shift back toward demanding efficient cars. Do we really want to be playing catch-up when that happens?
Even if some consumers are less concerned about fuel efficiency in the long run, we benefit today from the environmental and health benefits of burning less fuel.
Drivers are still logging miles, and maybe more miles when gas prices are so low. Our efficiency and emissions standards mean that there is less pollution per mile. The real world toll that pollution takes on our health and on our economy is being reduced every day by these standards.
During the hearing, my colleagues called for reducing national efficiency and emissions standards to what they call ‘more achievable’ levels. But almost 10 percent of cars already meet standards that don’t even take effect until 2020 and beyond.
We’re ahead of the curve, and that’s a good thing.
The CAFE and emissions standards today will create an estimated 650,000 jobs across the country by 2030, including 50,000 in manufacturing. New technologies being developed in response to the standards, like eight or nine-speed transmissions and downsized engines, make companies more competitive and keep our air cleaner. We shouldn’t slow or stop our progress because, at the moment, gas is two bucks a gallon.
Congress has lots of things it needs to fix. But the fuel efficiency and emissions standards ain’t broke.
We need not interfere with the sound and sensible incentives already in place to conserve energy and and reduce pollution in our automotive sector.
Peters represents California’s 52nd district and is the chairman of the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition‘s Climate Task Force.