Can Lawmakers Find a Middle Way on Fuel Efficiency?

Source: By Jessie Stolark, EESI • Posted: Monday, December 18, 2017

House Lawmakers Debate Harmonizing EPA, NHTSA Standards

On December 12, the House Energy & Commerce Committee held a hearing, “Update on the Corporate Average Fuel Economy Program (CAFE) and Greenhouse Gas Emissions Standards for Motor Vehicles.” At the heart of the debate is whether or not U.S. automakers can meet increasingly stringent fuel efficiency standards by 2025, in light of the fact that Americans are buying more SUVs and trucks than ever. Utilizing high-octane, low carbon biofuels as another way to increase fuel efficiency was also mentioned.

While the hearing was broadly about the feasibility of meeting 2025 CAFE standards, lawmakers and witnesses were mostly debating the merits of harmonizing fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas (GHG) standards for light duty cars and trucks.  In theory, EPA’s GHG standards and NHTSA’s fuel efficiency program should operate as a single “National Program,” however, differences between the programs have become starker over time and have left automotive manufacturers frustrated by having to comply with two separate standards, or three, if you count California’s Zero Emissions Vehicles (ZEV) mandate, which is also followed by seven other states.

The Fuel Economy Harmonization Act (H.R. 4011 and S.1273) seeks to ‘harmonize’ the two programs and is co-sponsored by Representatives Fred Upton (R-MI) and Debbie Dingell (D-MI); in the Senate, the bill is co-sponsored by Senators Roy Blunt (R-MO) Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Jerry Moran (R-KS), Gary Peters (D-MI) and Todd Young (R-IN). It would also allow for automotive manufacturers to apply credits from earlier program years, up to 2021.  Automotive state representatives, like Rep. Upton, credit this as a common-sense way to preserve fuel economy standards, stating in a release that the legislation would “help deliver on the promise of a strong national fuel economy standard, replacing the current patchwork of federal and state law.”

On the other side of the issue, many Democrats decried the bill as a simple rollback, with Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) stating that the bill “isn’t about harmonization – it is about weakening.” The Union of Concerned Scientists has calculated that the bill would amount to an additional 155 million metric tons of additional GHGs and $34 billion in fuel costs.

Automotive witnesses denied wanting to weaken standards. According to Mitch Bainwol, President and CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, they are seeking a balance between meeting the standards and selling cars. The more expensive the standards become for the industry, the more expensive cars become and the slower the fleet turns over.

They cited the “bureaucratic drag” that the separate standards force on the industry, as well as the growing gap between state and federal programs and the impact that increasing sales of trucks and SUVs has meant for meeting fuel efficiency standards. While automotive manufacturers claim that they are making the vehicles consumers want, minority witness Dr. Dave Cooke, from the Union of Concerned Scientists, pointed out that trucks and SUVs have the largest profit margins for the industry, and are heavily marketed to consumers.

Two Illinois lawmakers, Representatives John Shimkus (R-IL) and Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), asked witnesses about the potential efficiency contributions from high-octane, low carbon biofuels, when used with new highly efficient engines. (EESI recently held a briefing on this topic).

John Bozzella, President and CEO of Global Automakers, commented on the potential for octane, “we’re constantly researching and working on the combinations of vehicle systems … and fuels… You have to think of it as one system. Hardware, software, engines and fuels. We’re constantly evaluating new fuel and engine combinations and we think octane certainly contributes to efficiency, and so there’s an opportunity there … That brings additional benefits to the process while we’re still working on gasoline powered engines.”   In answer to a similar question, Mr. Bainwol commented, “High octane absolutely has value in terms of fuel efficiency. And I’ve seen it estimated in the order of 4 or 5 percent, so there’s real value on high-octane.”

Representative Fred Upton (R-MI), past co-chair of the automotive caucus, commented that “we all want fuel efficiency” and largely blamed low gas prices for the discrepancies appearing within the National Program, stating that “they were all surprised” that the standards were not, in fact, harmonizing as planned, and that the mid-term evaluation was not an effort to “halt the progress” but to take a look back on the feasibility and progress of the standards.

Perhaps one thing that both sides can agree upon is opening up the available suite of compliance tools to enable greater efficiency – including clean octane.

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