Column: Don’t weaken clean car standards

Mary D. Nichols and Margo T. Oge
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At the Detroit Auto Show in January, Chevy unveiled the all-electric Bolt and the new, improved Volt 2.0. Both represent major accomplishments. Equally notable is Toyota’s recent unveiling of the fuel cell electric Mirai. And the announcement by Ford CEO Mark Fields that his company’s fleet is on track to meet the national clean car standards adopted in 2011 that will require fleet averages of 54.5 mpg by 2025 is in some ways the most significant of all.

What often goes unmentioned is that the 2025 54.5 mpg rule is in fact the single largest climate action taken by the federal government to reduce greenhouse gases. Fully integrated with standards set under the Clean Air Act, the joint program stands to eliminate 6 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions, reduce oil consumption by 12 billion barrels, and save consumer $1.7 trillion over the program’s life.

General Motors, Toyota, Ford and other auto manufacturers are taking giant strides to innovate and produce more efficient cars and trucks of all sizes that perform better, pollute less, and save consumers more. Upping the competition, Tesla, a new company, is racing to increase production to meet demand for its award-winning zero-emission all electric car.

So far, the car companies have met all the phased-in fuel economy benchmarks — 34 percent of 2014 cars were actually ahead of schedule — while becoming profitable again. Quite a feat considering it was only a few years ago that the auto industry fought a pitched battle in Congress and the federal courts to prevent any regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles, claiming it just wasn’t feasible to deliver or sell the very efficient vehicles they are now producing in increasing numbers and that consumers are demanding.

Once they empowered engineers instead of lawyers, automakers demonstrated a feisty can-do attitude. Cars improved almost overnight, with year-over-year gains in fuel efficiency for every manufacturer and model, a rate of improvement that needs to continue so America can cut petroleum use in half by 2030.

The recent dip in gas prices has led some to suggest that automakers should shift back to supplying more of the large and less fuel efficient cars and trucks that were popular with consumers a decade ago. At least one industry executive has publicly called for a delay in the fuel economy standard.

That makes absolutely no sense. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, one of the primary drivers of this decrease in gas prices is the lower demand for gas resulting from the new rules. Let us not forget that even while oil prices drop, global temperatures continue to climb: 2014 registered as the hottest year so far, and 13 of the 14 hottest years on record were in the 21st century.

This is exactly the wrong time to take our foot off the accelerator of advancing technology. It is time to embrace the transformation of the automobile and harness the environmental and economic benefits of the industry’s shift towards safer, greener, and “connected” vehicles. Besides, history teaches us that gas prices won’t stay low forever. And whether prices are less than two dollars a gallon or more than five, cleaner and more efficient cars and trucks are always going to be something that benefit consumers.

The benefit to consumers as well as the industry from making driving more affordable was the main message that President Barack Obama delivered when he announced the historic agreement on the current regulations in 2011 in the White House Rose Garden, standing shoulder to shoulder with the heads of 13 leading automakers.

Today we appreciate that advanced clean cars are a necessary element of any strategy to slash greenhouse gas emissions to manageable levels and stave off the worst effects of climate change. We need to move toward a point in the near future where global fluctuations in petroleum costs are not even part of the equation. And these rules are moving us in the right direction.

The federal clean vehicle standards are working exactly as designed. The proof is on display at every dealership across the country. Now is no time to even think about driving in reverse.

Mary D. Nichols is chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board.

Margo T. Oge is the former director of EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality and author of “Driving the Future: Combating Change with Cleaner, Smarter Cars.”

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