Automakers urge tweaks to CAFE standards

Source: Jason Plautz • E&E  • Posted: Monday, February 20, 2012

Automakers called for minor changes to the Obama administration’s 2017-2025 fuel economy standards, including more credit for small vehicle tweaks and the elimination of requirements to reduce upstream emissions, in their public comments on the standards.

The comment period on the standards, which would require a 54.5 mpg fleetwide target by 2025, ended earlier this week. U.S. EPA and the Department of Transportation collected thousands of comments, ranging from support for the standards from environmental groups to recommended changes by auto manufacturers and salespeople.

The comments from the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers call for more credit for automakers that make improvements to vehicles that might not otherwise be counted, including tweaks to reduce refrigerant loss from air conditioning systems or other auto systems. The group also said such tweaks should be accounted for as early as this year and that a cap on credits for such changes should be raised.

The lobbying group urged the administration to conduct periodic technical evaluations throughout the program to ensure that assumptions on cost, consumer acceptance and technology availability are accurate. The alliance says the “check-ins” — which would come in addition to an agreed-upon midterm review period — would allow agencies to be better prepared for the later years of the program and make any necessary changes.

Automakers also said they should not be held accountable for upstream emissions on electric vehicle charging or vehicle manufacturing because they have little control over the electricity generation process.

Some alternative fuel groups, meanwhile, used the comment period to encourage the administration to give them a greater role in meeting the standards. The American Clean Skies Foundation — in concert with a variety of natural gas groups — filed a comment requesting that the administration consider a “technology-neutral approach” to raising fuel efficiency. The group’s comment charges that the draft rule “unduly favors [electric vehicles] to the detriment of [natural gas vehicles].”

Rather than offer credits and incentives for electric vehicles — currently, electric cars can be double-counted for manufacturers — the natural gas groups recommend that all alternative fuel vehicles be given credits under the program. Citing data that show natural gas vehicles can burn 15 to 25 percent cleaner than petroleum-fueled cars, the comment says natural gas vehicles should get equivalent treatment.

Likewise, biofuels and diesel groups said there should be a level playing field for all alternative fuels.

The Governors Biofuels Coalition also filed a comment requesting that the administration work to align changes to engine technology with their separate fuel composition adjustments, saying that a more advanced engine burning lower-octane fuel could actually increase the emissions of particulate matter.

“It is critically important that the proposed rule send the proper regulatory message so that the private sector can take maximum advantage of new vehicle and fuel technologies and ensure that the desired reductions in petroleum use are achieved at the lowest cost possible,” the group said in an accompanying letter.

Environmental groups, meanwhile, commended the standards, saying they would cut fuel consumption and slash harmful emissions. Jillian Hertzberg, clean vehicles associate for Environment America, said the response from consumers supporting the standard showed that Americans “are ready to accelerate toward cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars and trucks.”

“Making the cars and trucks of the future cleaner and more fuel efficient will drive us away from oil — while reaping big benefits for America’s environment, our health and our economy,” she added in a statement.

But auto dealers criticized the current makeup of the standards, saying they would raise the cost of cars by $3,000 — citing administration estimates — and price out some 6 million drivers by 2025.

“Even for those who can afford the price hike will avoid the substantial upfront cost and will choose a pre-owned car or truck or simply hold onto their current vehicle longer,” said the National Automobile Dealers Association. “Either way, real energy security and environmental gains will not be realized if consumers do not buy or cannot afford to put these new technologies on the road.”

The Consumers Union, the advocacy division of Consumer Reports, meanwhile, contributed its own data that show consumers would see a payoff in the first month of driving under the new standards thanks to lower gas consumption.

According to White House estimates, the new standards are expected to save 12 billion barrels of oil by 2025 and reduce emissions of more than 2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases over the life spans of vehicles sold between 2017 and 2025.