Transportation: The White House Puts Out Fuel Efficiency Standards for Heavy Vehicles

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Though Congress has been (self-)stymied on climate change this term, the Obama Administration has taken steps of its own to deal with rising U.S. carbon emissions. And nowhere have they been more aggressive than in promoting—mandating, really—better fuel efficiency on our roads, as I wrote earlier this month:

In May 2009 Obama brokered a deal with the auto industry that saw Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards rise for the first time in years, requiring automakers to meet a minimum level of 35.5 miles per gallon (mpg) by 2016. While carbon cap-and-trade and other climate policies often needed the cooperation of a cantankerous Congress, a tougher gas mileage standard was something the White House could do on its own—and the weakness of the U.S. auto industry sapped the opposition of any strength.
Now for the first time, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Transportation (DOT) will extend fuel efficiency requirements to the long-haul trucks, heavy-duty pickups and buses that account for 20% of the transportation sector’s fuel use, even though they only make up 4% of the vehicle on the road. The proposed new rules are complex, because trucks and other heavy vehicles are divided into a number of different categories, but this is roughly the way the regulations will break down, from the DOT:
For combination tractors, the agencies are proposing engine and vehicle standards that begin in the 2014 model year and achieve up to a 20 percent reduction in CO2 emissions and fuel consumption by 2018 model year.  For heavy-duty pickup trucks and vans, the agencies are proposing separate gasoline and diesel truck standards which phase in starting in the 2014 model year and achieve up to a 10 percent reduction for gasoline vehicles and 15 percent reduction for diesel vehicles by 2018 model year (12 and 17 percent respectively if accounting for air conditioning leakage). Lastly, for vocational vehicles, the agencies are proposing engine and vehicle standards starting in the 2014 model year which would achieve up to a 10 percent reduction in fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 2018 model year.
You can read the entire draft analysis in PDF form here. But in a conference call with reporters today, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and DOT Secretary Ray LaHood made the case that the new regulations—which will be available for comment—will pay dividends that go beyond greenhouse gas emissions reductions. “This will be win, win, win,” said LaHood. “It will reduce reliance on oil, strengthen energy security and mitigate climate change.”
How much? LaHood estimated that over the model years covered by the new standards, they could save 500 million barrels of oil, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 250 million metric tons and provide $35 billion in fuel cost savings for truckers, who can easily drive more than 150,000 miles in a year. “This is a result of improved regulations that are win win,” said Jackson. “The up-front cost for a new truck could easily be saved on lower fuel costs.”
The new regulations mark the first time the government has tried to mandate fuel efficiency improvements for heavy vehicles, and it’s another example of the regulatory options on energy and climate that will be available to the Obama Administration even if Congress continues to fail. (And given the climate skepticism of Congress’s likely new members, that’s a good bet.) But the regulations also show the limits of, well, regulations. These rules won’t push trucking companies towards alternative, low-carbon fuels like natural gas or even electrics—instead, the improvements will mostly be made with better engines and aerodynamic improvements. Those improvements won’t be revolutionary—that 500 million barrels of oil the rules will save over the course of several years will offset less than 50 days of U.S. imports at current prices. And as with any policy based around improving efficiency—but not promoting carbon-free fuels—there’s a risk of the rebound effect, which would limit the overall carbon savings. Still, with the EPA likely to come under conservative assault should Republicans take Congress, these standards might end up being a high-water mark for an embattled Administration.