President Obama speaks while auto industry executives listen Friday at… (Brendan Smialowski, Getty…)
Reporting from Washington — Set against the stalemate of the debt-ceiling debate, President Obama on Friday hailed agreement on an ambitious increase in auto fuel-economy standards as evidence that compromise and progress are still possible.
The agreement, which Obama called "the single-most important step we've ever taken as a nation to reduce our dependence on foreign oil," was hammered out in weeks of negotiations involving automakers, environmentalists, unions, White House officials and the state of California.
By 2025, the landmark deal calls for cars and light trucks to achieve a fleetwide average of 54.5 miles per gallon, only slightly less than the 56.2 miles per gallon that the administration had pushed for. The new standard will be phased in beginning in 2017.
Taking exemptions and other provisions into account, actual mileage may be about 42 mpg for cars with significantly lower mileage for light trucks, including minivans, SUVs and full-size pickup trucks. Still, the standards demand a substantial leap from the 2011 model year average of 27.8 mpg.
Flanked by auto executives and union leaders as he stood before a collection of gleaming new vehicles at Washington's auto show, Obama said, "This agreement ought to serve as a valuable lesson to leaders in Washington."
"You all are demonstrating what can happen when people put aside differences. These folks are competitors. You got labor and business. But they decided, 'We are going to work together to achieve something important and lasting for the country.'"
"This agreement provides the regulatory certainty we need to design and build fuel-efficient vehicles during the next 14 years," Alan Mulally, chief executive of Ford Motor Co., said in an emailed statement. "We are absolutely committed to continuously improving the fuel efficiency of all of our vehicles."
The United Auto Workers backed the agreement, too, convinced it would help create jobs. Said UAW President Bob King, "There is business opportunity in meeting consumer demand for relief at the pump."
Gov. Jerry Brown of California hailed the agreement, saying it provided a strong counterargument to "the powerful 'tea party' conservative Republican ideology that wishes to strip away the role that government performs. It's regulation that will advance the well-being of the country by encouraging technological innovation."
The environmental community was divided. Many groups backed it as a significant step toward reducing oil consumption and greenhouse gas emissions linked to climate change. Some, however, criticized it for allowing a slower pace of improvement for light trucks.
"While the president's proposal is a significant acceleration in the fight against global warming and oil addiction, it was weakened by auto industry lobbying," Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign, said in an emailed statement.
"Automakers have seeded it with loopholes that weaken the oil, pollution and gas-pump savings," he said.
The new pact builds on an agreement the government and car companies struck two years ago that mandated a sharp rise in gas mileage for cars and light trucks from model years 2012 to 2016.
This time, auto companies pushed for a small improvement in mileage to 40 miles per gallon but eventually agreed to the higher standard. They accepted the tougher standards, in part, because they would be allowed to improve fuel efficiency at a slower pace in their light truck fleet during the first five years of the new agreement.
Light trucks are among the industry's best sellers.
Despite the continuing wrangle over the debt ceiling, Obama managed a joke in the announcement ceremony on fuel efficiency.
Smiling as he took the lectern, he asked the car companies to make sure they produce a car that has a maximum speed of 15 miles per hour and includes an ejector seat for boys — for the day his daughter Malia gets a learner's permit.