California, Washington Face Off Over Vehicle Fuel Standards

California and a dozen other states could be heading for a showdown with the federal government as the Trump administration reviews rules on fuel efficiency and vehicle emissions, rules President Donald Trump has said curtail growth in the auto industry.

California has a waiver under federal law to set its own standards, and other states have the option to follow them.

California has been a leader in promoting fuel-efficient cars and sport utility vehicles, and the state says it will keep its strict standards, despite a review of federal regulations ordered by Trump.

Separately, the president signed an executive order Tuesday to reduce the federal role in regulating carbon emissions in the energy industry to promote “energy independence,” although scientists view carbon emission from fossil fuels as a major cause of global warming.

Vehicle fuel standards were strengthened in the final days of the Obama presidency, as the administration hurriedly completed a review of fuel economy targets through 2025, imposing goals that bring a corresponding reduction in tail-pipe emissions.  

Fueled by 1973 oil embargo

Therese Langer of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy says Obama was continuing a process that started in California in the 1960s, then moved to the rest of the country with federal legislation.

After the Arab oil embargo of 1973, Congress set targets with the CAFE, or Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards.

Langer says the rules helped reduce dependence on foreign oil, but “the dominant effect of bringing down that pollution from tail pipes of cars through a combination of changes to the cars and changes to the fuel is a human health benefit. And it’s really hard to overstate how dramatic that has been over the years.”

CAFE fuel economy standards are locked in through 2021, but the Trump administration is reconsidering the rules for the following years through 2025.

Supporters say strict standards help to cut the greenhouse gases that are fueling global warming, save consumers money, and reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil.

The president says he wants to cut government regulations.

Thomas Pyle of the industry-aligned American Energy Alliance says the president’s review will ask, “How [do] you balance the desire for fuel efficiency, for more fuel-efficient vehicles, with other things that are important when consumers go and purchase vehicles, such as size, safety, whether or not they need a truck for their job.”

Environmentalists push electric cars

Existing standards aim to improve fuel economy by promoting hybrid gasoline-electric and battery-powered electric vehicles.

Electric vehicles, or EVs, are just one percent of the market and pose a special challenge. Environmentalists say they have great promise, but need government incentives to spur development.

Laura Renger oversees air and climate issues for Southern California Edison, and she says the electric utility company is doing its part.

Renger drives an electric car to work and charges it outside the company office. She says EV drivers like her feel “range anxiety,” but the utility is installing 1,500 charging stations where people park their cars, “on campuses, work places, and shopping centers.”

Other companies are engaged in similar programs.

Renger says the market will expand as battery technology gets better and the charging infrastructure grows.

Critics say that government subsidies for electric vehicles are not needed, and Pyle, of the American Energy Alliance, says people who drive EVs can afford to do it without tax breaks.

Finding ‘the right balance’

Jessica Caldwell of the auto research site disagrees, and she says online behavior shows that buyers are sensitive to price and are looking for incentives.

“People in real time are very deal oriented,” she said, “so my fear is if you take away the federal subsidy, this market is really going to collapse,” she said.

California says it has no intention of removing its subsidies.

Langer, of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, says current government fuel-and-emission standards help consumers.

“If you look at the whole time period for which the standards were adopted under the last administration, that’s model year 2012 through 2025,” she said, “the consumer savings from buying less gasoline exceed a trillion dollars.”

But critics like Pyle ask, “What is the right balance, and who makes those choices, the government, or consumers and the auto industry together?”

He applauds Trump’s goal of improving the productivity of the energy and auto industries.

Twelve other states and the U.S. capital now follow the California standards, and if federal rules are weakened, car makers confusingly could face two different sets of vehicle standards, one based on California’s rules and one on Washington’s.

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