Mileage rules debate revs up in U.S. Senate

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Michigan’s Democratic senators have signed onto a bill that allows automakers to apply credits for model years as far back as 2009 to help comply with federal auto emission rules that require automakers to produce car and truck fleets that average around 41 miles per gallon by 2021.

Backers of the measure say the change will help “streamline” federal emission standards by addressing conflicts in existing rules that are enforced by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Environmentalists and consumer advocates argue the measure would weaken U.S. gas mileage rules by allowing automakers to get credit for previously achieved mileage improvements.

The measure, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., would allow automakers to apply credits for auto pollution reduction earned after the 2009 model year to help meet federal emission standards for the model years between 2016 and 2021.

Backers of the bill say the measure, known as the Fuel Economy Harmonization Act, addresses long-standing conflicts between NHTSA’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) program and the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas emissions programs, which the Obama administration announced in 2009 would be managed as one program.

“The conflicting fuel economy standards that are currently in place at NHTSA and EPA drive up manufacturing costs, which are ultimately passed on to consumers,” Blunt said in a statement. “This bill gets us closer to one national fuel economy standard program that meets the goals of both the NHTSA and EPA programs in a less costly, more efficient way. It is a bipartisan, commonsense step we can take to lower costs and boost U.S. auto manufacturing.”

Michigan’s Democratic U.S. senators agreed, signing on to the measure as co-sponsors.

“I continue to support one strong national standard that promotes innovation, increases fuel economy, reduces carbon emissions and ensures more choices for consumers,” U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, said in a statement. “Fuel economy standards have helped reduce our dependence on foreign oil and create new jobs for Michigan workers. Our bill makes simple changes so our manufacturers, suppliers and workers can continue to make the best products in the world.”

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, added: “Increased fuel efficiency and lower greenhouse gas emissions are key to both protecting our environment and keeping America economically competitive. I strongly support a unified national standard that spurs the development of innovative advanced vehicle technology, creates jobs here at home in America and Michigan and avoids a patchwork of regulations.”

The Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers, said the measure would help to fulfill regulators’ promises to “harmonize” the NHTSA and EPA fuel economy rules to prevent consumers from having to pay higher prices for cars.

“Automakers commend the sponsors of this bipartisan legislation for seeking to better align to government programs to avoid unnecessary costs that ultimately are paid by consumers,” the group, which lobbies for automakers in Washington, said. “We urge Congress to pass this legislation as soon as possible to help keep automobiles affordable to the widest range of customers.”

Environmentalists and consumer advocates painted a starkly different picture of the legislation, arguing it is an attempt to weaken federal emission standards that automakers have wanted to weaken for years.

“This bill is another step in the automakers’ push to roll back clean car and fuel economy standards that are reducing pollution and saving drivers money at the pump,” Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. “By providing windfall fuel-economy credits to automakers, this bill undercuts current investments in advanced, clean-car technologies that are driving innovation and job growth in the auto industry.”

Shannon Baker-Branstetter, policy counsel for the Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization division of Consumer Reports, added: “Americans who depend on larger vehicles and trucks for work or family needs would suffer most. Our research has shown that under current standards, truck and SUV owners would save $4,800 over the life of their vehicle. These savings are likely to be much lower if this draft bill is approved.”

The fuel-mileage rules at issue are part of federal regulations that were implemented by the Obama administration in 2012 that require automakers to produce car and truck fleets averaging more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025.

President Donald Trump’s administration is reviewing the mileage rules for the model years between 2022 and 2025 after reversing course on a decision by the Obama administration to finalize the rules ahead of schedule in the former president’s final weeks in office.

Automakers will face fines of $5.50 for each one-tenth of a mile-per-gallon that their average fuel economy falls short of the standard for a model year, multiplied by the total volume of vehicles sold under the current regulations.

Under the current rules, deficits in fuel economy can be addressed with credits from future years or purchased from other auto companies. NHTSA also says credits can be “banked and carried forward for up to five years, or carried back up to three years to cover a deficit in a previous year” under the emission rules.

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing