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On the right road with federal fuel economy standards

Editorial

The Obama administration's fuel economy standards will save oil and cut greenhouse emissions. Republican opposition is misguided.

August 29, 2012
  • Over the lifetime of the vehicles sold between 2017 and 2025, the Obama administration's fuel standards will save 4 billion barrels of oil and 2 billion metric tons of greenhouse-gas emissions.
Over the lifetime of the vehicles sold between 2017 and 2025, the Obama administration's… (Jamie Rector / Bloomberg…)

There's nothing really new about the federal fuel economy standards that were finalized Tuesday — they were announced more than a year ago and have changed little since — but now that we're on the verge of a presidential election, they're generating more political heat.

"Gov. Romney opposes the extreme standards that President Obama has imposed, which will limit choices for American families," said Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul. "The president tells voters that his regulations will save them thousands of dollars at the pump, but always forgets to mention that the savings will be wiped out by having to pay thousands of dollars more upfront."

Untrue in every particular. The new standards would be phased in from model year 2017 to 2025; by the end of that time, each automaker's passenger vehicle fleet would average 54.5 miles per gallon. This won't limit vehicle choices, because it's a fleet average — there will still be four-wheel-drive pickups, vans and other heavy vehicles on the road, but they will be lighter and more fuel efficient than they are today and will have to be offset with more high-mileage alternatives. Romney's price argument, meanwhile, is the sort of thing you'd expect from a clueless rich guy. Yes, the new technologies will cost more upfront, but only very wealthy people pay the full price of a new car upfront. Most people finance such purchases, and the monthly savings on gas resulting from the new standards are expected to more than make up for a car buyer's higher monthly payment.

Other Republican opponents of the Obama administration's fuel standards — which represent the most important environmental achievement of the president's first term — contend they'll result in unsafe vehicles. In general, lighter vehicles are less safe, so that's not an unreasonable conclusion, but the full story is more complicated. The heaviest classes of vehicles will probably see the biggest weight reductions. That should help reduce fatalities because the mass differential involved when an SUV collides with a subcompact plays a big factor in the death rate. Amid competing claims about the impact of the standards on safety, the truth is that we won't really know until 2025.

Here's what we do know: Over the lifetime of the vehicles sold between 2017 and 2025, the new standards will save 4 billion barrels of oil and 2 billion metric tons of greenhouse-gas emissions, with a net benefit to society of up to $421 billion, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That's the biggest blow the nation has ever struck against climate change, and one of its most significant in reducing reliance on foreign oil. If Republicans don't like that, their energy strategy might need a little work.

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