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Clean Car Rule

Must be a Victory for Consumers and the Environment

In May, President Barack Obama announced national clean car standards to spur the creation of an American automobile fleet that averages approximately 35 miles per gallon by 2016. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Transportation (DOT) are currently finalizing rule to implement these standards.

This effort is the culmination of years of hard work by UCS, our 250,000 members and activists, and the clean car community across the country. The implementation and expansion of the California clean car standards, the strengthening of Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards in 2007, and determined efforts to ensure that states preserved the right to regulate global warming emissions under the Clean Air Act all played a crucial role in this moment (see Related Resources).

The proposed rule released by the EPA and DOT would boost the fleetwide fuel economy of new vehicles sold in the United States to 34.1 miles per gallon by model year 2016. The standards also would set the first national tailpipe heat-trapping emissions standard for vehicles at 250 grams per mile, nearly 30 percent less than the emissions produced by today's average new vehicle.

Following a 60-day public comment period ending November 27, 2009, the EPA and DOT are required to finalize the standards by March 31, 2010. If finalized, these proposed standards will be the biggest increase in fuel economy in more than 30 years.

UCS calculates that the proposed standards would:

  • Reduce U.S. oil consumption by about 1.3 million barrels per day by 2020, nearly as much as the oil we currently import from Saudi Arabia.
  • Cut global warming emissions by 215 million metric tons in 2020, the equivalent of taking nearly 32 million of today's cars and light trucks off the road that year.

  • Save drivers $32 billion in 2020 based on a gas price of $2.50 per gallon, even after they pay the cost of vehicle technology improvements. (If gas prices spike to $4 a gallon again, the new standards would save drivers $61 billion in 2020.)

Cleaner cars are a fiscal winner for consumers from the very moment they purchase their car. Today, roughly 70 percent of consumers purchase their vehicle using a loan. Assuming a typical loan rate of 6 percent over five years, savings at the pump are higher than the additional technology costs each and every month the consumer owns the vehicle—even at a modest $2 a gallon. In other words, while the vehicle may cost slightly more, the owner never pays more overall. And with fuel prices at today's levels, that just means even greater savings at the pump. After the five-year loan is up, the additional fuel savings from a more efficient vehicle continue to rack up, free and clear.

The agreement also preserves California's authority under the Clean Air Act to continue setting the nation's strongest air pollution standards for vehicles beyond 2016. This is extremely important, as both the UCS analysis Setting the Standard, and the EPA’s own analytical backing for the national clean car rule show that the automakers could make vehicles that go well beyond the 34.1mpg target and still present the consumer with a net savings on their vehicle.

While the proposal calls for strong new standards and, importantly, closes certain loopholes that have long been used by the industry, it has the potential to create new loopholes that would undermine the effectiveness of the program. For instance, one new provision could underestimate the heat-trapping emissions produced by certain vehicle technologies, including "zero-emission" vehicle technologies such as plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles. The proposed rules, for example, do not count heat-trapping emissions associated with generating electricity to charge those vehicles.

The proposed rule to implement the National Clean Car Standards is therefore a strong step forward for fuel economy, and the final rule should ensure that the automakers use their technology, and not loopholes, to meet the mark.

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