gas pump

gas pump

According to reports in The New York Times and elsewhere, President Barack Obama will resolve conflicts between state and Federal fuel economy standards by announcing that California's stricter limits will be applied nationwide.

By the 2016 model year, new rules will require each carmaker's Corporate Average Fleet Economy (CAFE) to reach 42 miles per gallon, weighted by sales. That is the level effectively required by California's limits on greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide.

Today's CAFE standards are 27.5 mpg for cars and approximately 24 mpg for trucks. The new standard is said to have its steepest increases in later model years, reflecting the reality that automakers have already tooled up to build cars for 2010, 2011, and 2012.

The new standards apply to model years 2012 through 2016; in March, the CAFE requirement for 2011 was set at 30.2 mpg for cars and 24.1 mpg for light trucks.

Fear of "patchwork" standards

Automakers had long feared what they called "a patchwork of standards" that would require them to monitor and adjust their model mixes in each state to comply with state-by-state limits on greenhouse gases. Those limits would have been de facto fuel economy standards, since carbon emitted is proportional to fuel burned.

California had taken the lead on reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and won a Supreme Court victory that directed the EPA to regulate carbon dioxoide, just as it has limited "criteria pollutants" (carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, and hydrocarbons) since the 1970s.

This created a regulatory dilemma, since the Environmental Protection Agency regulates emissions but the Department of Transportation regulates gas mileage. Automakers have asked for a single national standard and a defined schedule for the new limits.

Now, the Obama Administration is reportedly set to resolve the problem by issuing new CAFE requirements consistent with California's CO2 restrictions.

No action under Bush Administration

The Bush Administration had denied California's request to set its own standards, a denial Obama aides directed the EPA to reconsider as soon as the new administration took office.

Under Bush, no action was taken to raise fuel economy standards that had remained unchanged since the 1980s. New standards--requiring a 40 percent mileage improvement by 2020--were set in late 2007, but the rules implementing them were never issued.

An announcement of the new standards could come as early as tomorrow.

One wrinkle in meeting the new limits will be how "gas mileage" is calculated for plug-in vehicles that can run at least some distance on electricity alone. For these cars, the details of the duty cycle under which they'll be tested become vitally important.

The 2011 Chevrolet Volt, for example, has "infinite" gas mileage if it runs 40 miles or fewer each day and is recharged at night. GM hopes to achieve a so-called "100 MPG" rating for the Volt under mileage formulas that are still being created.

Tailpipe Emissions

Tailpipe Emissions

[SOURCES: The New York Times, Detroit Free Press, Automotive News (subscription required)]