Don’t Eliminate Power to Improve Vehicle Efficiency

This post was written by James Coan, research associate at the Baker Institute Energy Forum

Recall the trite phrase “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” In trying to limit the power of the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases (GHGs), some legislators may be doing just that, effectively voting to eliminate the most powerful process available for reducing the U.S.’s use – and thus, import – of oil.

This past Congress saw two unsuccessful attempts to limit the power of the EPA, one from Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia) and another from Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). Both bills were anti-climate change regulation, but their effects would have been vastly different.

Rockefeller’s bill was specifically designed to delay the implementation of regulations on stationary sources of greenhouse gases for two years. But it allowed regulations for mobile sources of GHGs to continue unimpeded. In its backing of the state of California’s climate policies, the Obama administration locked in fuel efficiency standards that would push passenger efficiency to about 35 mpg by 2016. The EPA, along with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) are working on GHG limits for passenger vehicles that would increase fuel efficiency for vehicles to the 50 mpg range by 2025. Baker Institute research shows that such a policy could save as much as 7 million b/d of U.S. oil imports, or more than half of current import levels.  EPA and NHTSA also have a proposal to improve the efficiency of larger trucks like 18-wheelers.

Murkowski’s bill ignores the distinction between mobile and stationary sources of GHGs and thereby would put at risk policies that tighten rulemaking to allow for greater improvements in fuel economy – a policy that has benefits beyond curbing greenhouse gases. Her bill, a disapproval resolution that failed in the Senate 47-53, tried to invalidate the “endangerment finding.” Without the finding, EPA would have to abandon all of its climate policies, including those involving vehicle standards.

Senators who are opposed to all EPA rulemakings regardless of their merit could also choose to introduce a separate bill in Congress to directly improve fuel economy standards, which Congress did in 1975 and 2007. Such an approach would have the same effect of reducing oil imports.

In their fury to prevent the EPA from beginning a program to reduce GHG emissions, politicians should take care to consider the meaningful policies that improve fuel efficiency for vehicles. The benefits of the latter are broad and supported by the American public.