60 MPG by 2025? It's Going to be a Big Fight.

Last Updated Oct 4, 2010 6:38 PM EDT

The EPA and the Department of Transportation dropped the other shoe Friday, announcing a framework for long-range, much tougher fuel economy/greenhouse gas 2017-2025 standards for cars and trucks that build on the 35.5 mpg for 2016 announced just last May. It proposed a range of reductions, from an annual three percent cut in greenhouse gases (translating to 47 mpg by 2025 for the auto fleet) to a six percent cut (62 mpg by then). Auto dealers called the new proposals a rush to judgment prodded by over-ambitious California regulators, but a coalition of environmental groups is already campaigning hard for a holy grail 60-mpg standard.

Automakers have shown they can be nasty fighters, especially in the face of regulations they don't like. They're holding closed-door meetings now, deciding how badly they don't like these new government proposals. It could be a major fight, one that I'm guessing the greens will at least partially win with a goal of at least 50 mpg. I'd love to see 60 mpg, too, but it may be a stretch goal for a nation addicted to big cars and high performance.

Last spring, the terrain was quite different: Green groups shook hands in May with auto companies and the Obama Administration on an EPA/NHTSTA fuel economy/greenhouse gas standard that reached 35.5 miles per gallon in 2016. It met everyone's needs: Automakers knew they could gain some green cred and reach the goals with tools already in their arsenal. Obama could claim climate change progress without getting anything through Congress. And environmentalists could be seen to have finally influenced long-recalcitrant carmakers (who had fought successfully against raising the standards for more than 20 years).

That was then. Now, with Obama less popular, automakers aren't as eager to please him. And they're not as bankrupt now as they were then, so the begging bowls have been put away.

But greens are pushing hard. "Sixty mpg is technically feasible, cost effective and offers the most benefits to consumers," said Jim Kliesch, a senior engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists. "There's not a lot to argue with." But arguments are almost certainly what we will get.

Automakers are quite likely to push either toward the center or lower end, but they're not showing their hand just yet. The National Automobile Dealers Association reacted sourly, blaming the new more stringent rules on overeager California regulators and claiming that American consumers now face "the prospect of being priced out of the car market." NADA linked the loss of mobility to challenges in the employment market, meaning that the EPA rules could leave people carless and jobless.

Dave McCurdy, who heads the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, reacted much more cautiously, promising a "careful review," and urging the EPA and NHTSA to engage experts and balance what's technically feasible with "economic challenges." The take is much more measured, but it's the same essential message as NADA.

The greens, joined together in the Go60MPG coalition, are going to argue that Americans are more than willing to pay the price premium for cleaner cars. And Roland Hwang, transportation program director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, says it has the public on its side, pointing to recent Mellman Group polls (sponsored by Go60MPG) that show 74 percent public support for a 60 mpg standard. The support continues among 66 percent if the fuel economy gains add $3,000 to the cost of a new car.

Hwang says consumers can easily absorb the higher costs of greener cars, too. "We estimate the average incremental cost of about $2,700 will be paid for in fuel savings in about four years," Hwang said. He also points to big carbon savings: 62 mpg would mean a reduction of 190 grams of CO2 per mile. The 47-mpg figure would result in a 143 grams per mile cut.

The Consumer Federation of America also support higher fuel economy standards, but it's working separately from the green groups. Mark Cooper, director of research at the federation, said the group looks forward to "convincing the agencies that 60 mpg is technically feasible and economically practicable."

The automakers will counter that consumers are voting with their feet, and in the face of just slightly lower gas prices are walking away from more fuel-efficient cars to buy SUVs and big trucks again. They'll say the new standards, particularly 60 mpg, are impossible to meet with affordable technology. Last time was all smiles, this time it's a fight.