Yes He Can: Obama Needs to Push for Strong Fuel Economy/Greenhouse Rules

Last Updated May 24, 2010 11:01 AM EDT

President Bush had an opportunity to change American energy policy after 9/11, which he flubbed, and President Obama has one now as oil continues to gush from BP's crippled offshore oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. The difference is that Obama is taking advantage of it. A very cautious president is moving the chess pieces at exactly the time when he's most likely to win the game. And he's proposing tougher fuel economy standards that Americans overwhelmingly support as a way to reduce foreign oil dependence.

Without much media notice, Obama signed a memorandum Friday that says he would use his executive power to build on his 2012-2016 fuel economy/greenhouse gas rules (a landmark agreement requiring buy-in from automakers and state officials). Obama's sights are now set on cars built in 2017 and after, and medium- and heavy-duty trucks built from 2014 to 2018. The latter are only four percent of the vehicles on the road, but they represent 20 percent of U.S. oil consumption.

Obama should really put his clout and his prestige on the line here to ensure that the post-2017 standards are as strong as possible. He has some record, as with the recalibrated climate legislation now emerging in the Senate, of offering lip service and half-hearted support. But when he's really committed, as with the health care bill, it makes a big difference. And he can't lose on this one.

The 2016 standard calls for cars to achieve 35.5 mpg, and it clearly pushes automakers in the direction of hybrids, electric cars and economy vehicles. Greenhouse gas reductions, directly tied to fuel economy, are a bonus and complement pending climate legislation. The specifics of the new proposals aren't known yet.

Automakers, who backed the 2012-2016 rules because they consolidated previously disparate state and federal mandates, are also supportive of Obama's latest move so they can get to work on long-range planning. "Auto technologies require long lead times for research and development, typically five to 10 years and more," said Dave McCurdy, president and CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. "This approach achieved success once before, so we are optimistic that we can do it again."

Polls show that Americans always support moves to reduce dependence on foreign oil. A Consumer Federation of America survey showed that 65 percent of Americans supported a 50 mpg standard by 2025 even before the Gulf of Mexico spill. In late March, 87 percent said it is "important that the country reduce its consumption of oil," and 54 percent said it is "very important."

That 54 percent "very important" score increased to 68 percent when Americans were informed that the U.S. has only three percent of world oil reserves. The number would probably go up even higher if they learned, as the Center for American Progress reports, that one in five barrels of oil consumed in the U.S. comes from countries that are "dangerous" or "unstable," according to the State Department.

The 2012-2016 standards improve fuel economy 40 percent -- saving consumers money at the pumps. And truckers could see big gains, too. A new Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) study, prepared with the California-based quasi-state clean vehicle incubator CALSTART, says that a 3.7-mpg fuel economy improvement for big rigs could save fleet owners more than $120,000 per tractor-trailer over eight years, and individual owner-operators $800,000 per truck over 10 to 15 years.

The better standards could also create more than 120,000 new jobs by 2030, UCS said. Why? "Because fuel savings outweigh the cost of more efficient trucks," said Don Anair, co-author of the UCS report. That means fleet owners will replace older rigs, leading truck manufacturers to add extra shifts. "Truck owners struggle with fuel price and volatility, because fuel is typically the biggest cost of their business," said Bill Van Amburg, a CALSTART vice president. He said that the study takes into account the likely higher vehicle prices that will accompany tougher fuel standards.

All this adds up to the fact that there's not likely to be any insurmountable opposition to new fuel/greenhouse gas standards, so Obama will not be risking a whole lot by putting his clout behind them.

Photo: Flickr/JLaw45