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The Fight Over Fuel Economy: Is 56 MPG High Enough?

With a proposal over future fuel economy standards expected in September, it’s shaping up to be a long summer of wrangling between the Obama Administration and the auto industry over the specifics. While negotiations proceed, the fate of the American car industry may hang in the balance. According to the The New York Times, the White House

is proposing regulations that will require new American cars and [light] trucks to attain an average of as much as 56.2 miles per gallon by 2025, roughly double the current level. That would require increases in fuel efficiency of nearly 5 percent a year from 2017 to 2025.

While 56 mpg isn’t as ambitious a proposal as some might have hoped for, it is a huge step in the right direction and deserves to be recognized as such. The outcome of the current negotiations will build on previous work to increase standards. The Obama Administration has already put in place regulations governing cars and light trucks that mandate an average of 35.5 mpg by 2016 (for an in-depth look at the 2016 number, see this article).

Increasing fuel economy standards will reduce Americans' vulnerability to high gas prices. Among other voices calling for a higher standard, Consumer Reports last month advocated a more ambitious goal of 62 mpg: "'Improving fuel economy standards is one of the most effective ways to save consumers money at the pump,' said Jim Guest, president of Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports."

Given the importance to consumers, as well as the need to reduce our nation's oil consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, let’s hope that 56 mpg isn’t just an opening offer that the Administration plans to abandon as negotiations proceed. As Paul A. Eisenstein said in a web post late last month, “What’s unclear is whether the new proposal is the point at which the White House expects to begin bargaining with the auto industry, or if it sees 56 mpg as the compromise it is willing to settle for.”

The Obama Administration shouldn’t bend on this issue. But, as Eisenstein’s post explains, there is pressure coming from both sides of this debate:

Proponents of an even bigger increase in fuel economy standards say the compromise figure would not do enough to reduce global warming or decrease America’s dependence upon foreign oil.

But some industry representatives and others say even the 56.2 mpg standard could result in costs that are more than the public can bear, leading to sharp declines in new car sales and the loss of thousands of automotive jobs. They have suggested a standard of perhaps 47 mpg, which would represent a 3 percent annual increase over a decade.

In a refreshing turn of events in a system where party lines often seem to dictate everything, it seems partisan politics are not driving this debate. According to the post:

Liberal Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., is one of those siding with the industry, saying that even the reduced 56 mpg target is too high. On the other hand, a group of 15 prominent Republicans, including former governors, members of Congress and EPA administrators, wrote the White House last week to back the full 62 mpg target.

Given this room to maneuver, the Obama Administration would be wise to court support on both sides of the aisle in pushing for a high level of fuel efficiency. After all, this is an issue of national significance that transcends party politics, and the opportunity to dramatically boost fuel standards must not be missed.