By asking the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider automobile emissions rules, President Obama has taken an important step toward more quickly raising national fuel economy standards. More fuel-efficient cars will benefit consumers and the environment.
The new president asked the EPA to revisit its decision not to allow California to implement stricter tailpipe emissions than those adopted by the federal government. Maine and 14 other states had joined California in approving the higher standards, but they never were implemented because the EPA declined to grant the necessary waiver.
Higher fuel economy standards are one way to reduce emissions because if a car goes farther on a gallon of gas, it will emit less.
Congress last year approved the first increase in what are called corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, standards in two decades. The new standards require that passenger vehicles average 35 miles per gallon by 2020.
The California rules would require emissions reductions quicker than would be accomplished under the new federal CAFE standards. It is now up to the EPA to decide which approach is best.
Automakers are naturally concerned about the president’s action. They rightly fear a patchwork of state rules, but since California and the other states that have passed its standards account for nearly half the national car market, these rules would become the national standards.
American automakers are in the worst economic situation in their history. Washington clearly doesn’t want to add to their woes, but a move toward more fuel-efficient vehicles is overdue. Before the recession put the brakes on sales of all types of cars, pur-chases of gas-hungry sport utility vehicles plummeted, showing that consumer demand has changed. The current low gas prices are not expected to last, so this change likely is permanent.
At the same time, warnings that stricter gas mileage standards will limit consumers to small (code for unsafe) vehicles ring hollow.
The National Academy of Sciences found that fuel economy could be increased by 50 percent while maintaining vehicle size and performance without reducing safety. Midsize cars could average 41 miles per gallon and large pickups nearly 30 mpg using existing technology. With technology that has yet to be invented, the fuel savings could be much larger.
In Europe and Asia, American car companies already are selling cars that get far better gas mileage than vehicles the same companies are selling in the United States.
With billions of dollars in federal money to help them through the economic downturn, these companies should be expected to work with the Obama administration to find ways to make cars that drivers want that are also fuel efficient and pollute less.