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November 16, 2011 

White House Proposes Strong Fuel Efficiency and Auto Pollution Standards

Loopholes and Weak Standards for Big Pickups and SUVs Could Undermine Consumer Savings and Choice

WASHINGTON (Nov. 16, 2011)—The Obama administration today proposed new fuel efficiency and global warming pollution standards for model year 2017 through 2025 cars and light trucks. The move represents another critical step in reducing the nation’s oil consumption and harmful emissions from vehicles, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). But the group cautioned that the new standards include provisions that could undercut fuel-efficiency improvements.

The Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency issued a joint Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would nearly double fuel efficiency standards for new vehicles by model year 2025 and cut their global warming pollution in half. At the same time, the California Air Resources Board outlined their plans to issue automobile global warming standards consistent with the federal proposal.

“If you love going to the gas station, you are going to hate these standards,” said Michelle Robinson, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Clean Vehicles Program. “President Obama continues to take the burden of America’s oil addiction seriously.”

Under the proposal, which stems from a widely-supported July agreement between automakers, the White House, and California state officials, Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards would climb to about 50 miles per gallon (mpg) and global warming pollution standards would tighten to a 163 grams-per-mile carbon-dioxide-equivalent by model year 2025.

According to UCS analysis, if automakers don’t exploit provisions that could undermine potential savings, the proposed standard would:

  • Save consumers more than $6,000 over the lifetime of a new 2025 vehicle compared to a typical 2008 vehicle, even after paying for the cost of additional fuel-saving technology. This assumes an average gasoline price of $3.50 per gallon. Total net savings for consumers would reach $50 billion dollars in 2030 alone.
  • Cut America’s oil dependence by 1.5 million barrels per day in 2030. That is more oil than we currently import from Saudi Arabia and Iraq. 
  • Reduce U.S. global warming pollution by 290 million metric tons in 2030, the equivalent of taking more than 40 million of today’s typical cars and trucks off the road for an entire year.

The proposal builds on successful standards EPA and DOT are implementing for model years 2012 through 2016, which allow automakers to produce a single national fleet of vehicles that complies with both the Clean Air Act and CAFE standards.

“The benefits we’ll see show how essential the Clean Air Act is for protecting American’s health,” said Robinson. “Seven years ago, California used its Clean Air Act authority to set the nation’s first vehicle global warming pollution standards. Now, President Obama has used his combined authority on fuel efficiency and auto pollution to pave the way for cleaner cars through 2025.”

Automakers are expected to achieve these standards largely through improvements to conventional engines and transmissions, improved materials and aerodynamics, and increasing production of hybrid-electric vehicles. Advanced technologies, such as electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids can also play a role.

Due to differences between how fuel efficiency standards and new vehicle window labels are calculated, UCS estimates that the proposed standards will result in average on-road fuel efficiency for gasoline-powered cars of approximately 35 mpg in 2025. Further, UCS analysis shows that 39 models sold today already meet proposed standards for model year 2017.

“Automakers signed on the dotted line because they have the technology to deliver,” said David Friedman, senior engineer and deputy director of the Clean Vehicles program. “Consumers are the big winners here. They will finally have access to better technology in all sizes of cars and trucks, which will be cleaner, more fuel efficient, and much cheaper to drive.”

While today’s proposal represents real progress, it also includes troubling provisions that automakers could exploit to reduce anticipated benefits from the program. Significantly weaker standards for light trucks could encourage automakers to take steps to reclassify cars as trucks, such as by installing four-wheel drive.

Standards for the largest trucks, meanwhile, don’t increase in the first year of the program and remain almost stagnant through 2021. As proposed, the standards will give automakers a perverse incentive to sell more large vehicles and increase the size of previously smaller ones to qualify for weaker standards. The same kind of incentives helped drive the development of egregious gas guzzlers such as the now-defunct Hummer. Finally, the program largely ignores emissions from generating electricity or hydrogen for battery and fuel cell cars.

The agencies are accepting public comment on the proposal through late January. The final standards are expected by the summer of 2012.


The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with citizens across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.

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