The tougher fuel economy standards for cars and trucks that President Barack Obama announced Tuesday are a much-needed win for consumers, the environment and the struggling automotive industry. Motorists will save at the pump with cars that go 40 percent farther on a gallon of gas. The reduction in greenhouse gases from improved fuel efficiency will remove the equivalent of tens of millions of cars from the road, helping stave off the effects of global warming. By having a national standard — instead of individual states cracking down piecemeal — automakers will have a degree of certainty as they remake their businesses to become more competitive. This is a welcome change in national energy policy at a critical time.
The plan calls for cars and trucks to meet an overall fleet average of 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. That is about 40 percent more efficient than the current standard of 27.5 mpg for cars and 23.1 mpg for trucks. The Obama administration effectively embraced the model California and 17 other states, including Florida, had adopted or had been considering in recent years. It also accelerated the deadline to achieve the gains to 2016, four years sooner than the old federal target date and the one sought by the states.
The administration estimates the new standards, to begin with car model year 2012, will save 1.8 billion barrels of oil and the release of 900 million metric tons of greenhouse gases. Obama acknowledged at the White House on Tuesday that the changes would add about $1,300 to the purchase price of a car or truck. But consumers should recoup that money in just a few years in the savings on gas. Over the lifetime of an average car, buyers could save thousands of dollars. The move is also a small step toward moving America away from its dependence on foreign oil.
The states deserve credit for forcing fuel efficiency onto the nation’s radar screen. Record gasoline prices helped — as did the continued volatility in global oil supplies. But the 18 states that took the lead account for about half the nation’s auto sales. While a state-by-state approach was the wrong way to go, it pressured the Obama administration to move boldly and quickly. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist also deserves credit. By issuing an executive order in 2007 calling for a California-style clean car rule, Crist joined Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in making emissions reductions a bipartisan issue even if he failed to convince the Legislature to go along.
For automakers, who joined Obama for his remarks in the Rose Garden Tuesday, the rules creating a national standard offer the struggling industry some regulatory predictability. Rather than face a patchwork of mileage and emissions standards from the federal government and the states, the troubled industry can forge ahead with plans for new model lines with a clearer vision of the regulatory landscape. With industry giants GM and Chrysler surviving on taxpayer subsidies, it was essential that the Obama administration act quickly to detail what it will take for automakers to remake themselves and return to viability.