Although as yet unofficial, an exciting new development is expected when President Obama will soon – probably later today – announces new federal rules for automobile emissions and mileage standards.

When Obama cleared the road for a federal waiver, which would have allowed California (and 13 other states which would have followed suit) to develop more stringent fuel efficiency standards, there were concerns that this will lead to a patchwork of regulations around the country. The new regulations which are about to be announced should redress these fears and bring the whole of the US up to the standards set by the Californian regulations (see fact sheet for California’s regulations, though the two set of rules use difference measurements, so complex conversions are needed to actually compare them). They will also mark the first ever limits on GHG tailpipe emissions in the United States.

Although some of the details are not completely clear, and there seems to be some confusion as to exact numbers, these rules which will take effect in 2012, will create a car and light truck fleet which is about 40% cleaner and more efficient than what we have today, by 2016. This is four years earlier than is required under current federal law, which was passed in 2007 but never enforced, as no regulations were made by the Bush administration.

This development will have wide support as it follows months of discussions with the ailing American auto industry, as well as fit in with the Waxman-Markey ACES bill which calls for a nationwide standard. Car manufacturers welcome the pending announcement in part because this will allow them to better plan for the future market, after finding themselves lagging behind Japanese and European manufacturers.

The expected announcement is naturally also supported by environmental politicians and NGOs. And as Daniel Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign said – “This is the single biggest step the American government has ever taken to cut greenhouse gas emissions.”


UPDATE – and now it’s official. With executives from 10 automakers by his side, and environmental leaders applauding from the audience, President Obama announced a new national fuel efficiency policy. The policy will cover model years 2012-2016, and by 2016 will require an average fuel economy standard  of 35.5 mpg (or 15km/litre. Compare this to the 35 mpg by 2020, which is what the 2007 CAFE law requires. The current average is 25 mpg). Obama mentioned that 1.8 billion barrels of oil will be saved over the lifetime of vehicles sold in the next 5 years (this is the equivalent of shutting down 194 coal plants or taking 58 million cars off the roads for a year).

This policy is a result of an unprecedented collaboration between the Department of Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency, Amrican auto manufacturers, the United Auto Workers, environmental leaders, the State of California, and other state governments.

UPDATE #2 – more details coming through mention that the EPA will indeed regulate tailpipe emissions, which has never been done before, and that Congress does not need to aprove these standards as they will be implemented through federal rules (which – together with the strong alliance backing it up – means that this is not just a pretty statement, but is a policy able to bring real changes).

Some thoughts – one of the things mentioned again and again by the different people involved, is how much collaboration went into this. It is a unique alliance between groups representing very different interests (auto industry, state governments, environmental NGOs, etc) all “marching forward in the same direction.” as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said at some point. Obama notes this as well, mentioning in his statement that “it represents not only a change in policy in Washington but the harbinger of a change in the way business is done in Washington… No longer will we accept anything less than a common effort, made in good faith, to solve our toughest problems.” As the problems facing the US are are indeed tough and deeply rooted, I only hope that this is really true, and not just wishful thinking from a man who sought to ‘reach out across the aisle’ since his first days in office (and was constantly rebuffed)

UPDATE #3 – questions have been raised about how this will affect the struggling ethanol industry which is currently trying to increase the national standard from a 10% ethanol blend (that is, ethanol constitute 10% of the blend sold at the pump) to a 15% blend. Some analysts say a tougher fuel efficiency standard might harm the industry as ethanol has a lower energy content than gasoline. However when questioned, Carol Browner the president’s assistant on energy and climate change, said she did not know the answer to that.

While sorry for the workers in a struggling industry, I can’t say that I will be sorry to see the strong ethanol lobby run into some difficulties or the industry forced to change the way it produces biofuels. Heavily subsidized corn based ethanol is not the way to produce carbon neutral fuels, nor is it beneficial to the American economy as a whole.

UPDATE #4 – The new policy resolves the conflict between the federal government and the state of California regarding fuel standards. Which means that the lawsuits connected to said conflict will now be dropped and these resources can be directed elsewhere (maybe sending more environemental lobbyists to Washington??).

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