Maine leads and the country follows on clean cars

Posted April 13, 2010, at 6:44 p.m.

Maine’s rural character is one of our defining characteristics — it also means many of us spend a lot of time in the car. In the Greater Portland area, transportation accounts for nearly half of our energy use, carbon emissions and costs, to the tune of over $450 million on gasoline and $140 million on diesel fuel. This dwarfs the $224 million that the region spends on heating oil every year.

Whether you are worried about the high price of gas, air pollution, U.S. national security or climate change, the Obama administration’s new fuel economy and emissions standards for America’s cars are welcome news. For those of us here in Maine, the “clean cars program” will save 57 million gallons of gasoline, the equivalent of permanently removing 105,550 cars from our roads. The savings to our wallets will be $157 million dollars at the pump.

Put another way, if people who bought cars last year from the Lee family of auto dealerships alone got another 10 miles per gallon better fuel economy, they would be able to save 1.2 million gallons of gasoline, or more than $3.5 million at today’s prices.

Just as important as the standards themselves is how they came to be. The clean cars program never would have happened were it not for the innovation and leadership shown by governors and legislatures from California, Maine and 12 others states who insisted that automakers produce cleaner and more fuel-efficient cars and refused to take no for an answer.

For more than four decades, states have built a time-tested tradition of bringing about innovations that improve the cars we drive and the air we breathe.

In the late 1960s, in response to terrible air pollution in cities such as Los Angeles, the state of California adopted the first-ever tailpipe emissions standards for cars, a move that paved the way for federal adoption of vehicle standards in the Clean Air Act. With the intention of giving other states with severe air pollution more tools to address the problem, the Clean Air Act allowed California to continue setting tougher emissions standards for cars and enabled other states to adopt these standards.

As new standards ensured that cars became cleaner during the 1970s, a new challenge emerged: America’s dependence on oil. Congress responded by adopting national fuel efficiency standards for cars. The new standards challenged the automotive industry and the industry met the challenge: By 1987, the average American vehicle was getting 22.6 miles to the gallon, compared with 13 mpg in 1975.

Despite this progress, by the late 1980s and early 1990s, national tailpipe pollution standards stalled – by 2002, new vehicles sold in the United States were getting worse gas mileage than those sold in the 1980s. As a result of the backsliding in fuel economy and an increase in driving because of growing sprawl, vehicle pollution was on the rise.

Frustrated by federal inaction on these challenges, states again took the lead. California prodded automakers to develop and implement advanced technologies. And in 2002, the state passed legislation for standards to limit global warming pollution from cars – a move that will simultaneously make cars more fuel efficient and save consumers money at the pump.

Thirteen other states, including Maine, moved to adopt what was now known as the “Clean Cars program.” In the spring of 2009, after the election of President Obama and with more states considering adopting the program, Obama’s transportation and environmental agencies announced a plan with automakers to implement a clean cars program nationwide.

The clean cars program will bring residents of Maine a new generation of cars that are cleaner and cost less to fuel. There are already more than 35 hybrids and electric cars available. Automakers are rising to the challenge with these new hybrids, more fuel-efficient conventional cars and electric vehicles that will hasten the day when America finally breaks our dependence on foreign oil.

Jane West is a staff attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation’s Maine Advocacy Center. The Conservation Law Foundation works to solve the most significant environmental challenges facing New England. Adam Lee is the president of Lee Auto Malls.

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