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Watts: Fuel Standards

A few years ago I sat in the Federal Court House in Burlington and watched the full might of the US Auto Industry on display. Vermont had joined a number of other northeast states and California in requiring higher gas mileage in cars. Auto companies had then chosen to sue three states; California, New York and Vermont. The discovery requests alone had kept several staff in the state’s environmental agency busy for months. Eloquent lawyers in dark suits argued that requiring cars to use less gas would make them too expensive. No one would buy them. They put state staff on the witness stand, peppering them with questions.

In the end, the states won. And, after President Obama was elected, the EPA joined them in requiring cars that burn less fuel. The difference has been striking.

For twenty five years between 1985 and 2010 passenger vehicles averaged 25 miles per gallon. No changes.

Then came the new set of fuel standards – and today, cars average 34 miles per gallon. By 2025 they’re expected to average more than 54 miles to the gallon - a ninety percent increase!

For drivers the cost savings are huge. A driver today can spend $500 less in a year on gasoline than just five years ago. In ten years those savings could double.

For the environment the savings are also huge. Our driving habit is the single greatest contributor to green-house gas emissions. Burning less fuel means less harmful carbon emissions.

And when it comes to energy independence, present rules are expected to reduce our oil addiction by 2 million barrels a day.

Yet, the auto industry is again fighting these standards and has found a friendly ear in the Trump Administration’s EPA.

The brilliance of the fuel standards is that the higher gas mileage requirement applies to an automakers entire fleet. So they can sell the more profitable big trucks and SUVs, if they still sell enough fuel efficient cars to meet the requirements – which results in making those cars more attractive and exciting to buyers.

The auto companies are now bringing out the same tired arguments. Meeting these standards is impossible. No one will buy the fuel efficient vehicles.

If they win, we’ll all be paying more to drive.

The difference is now they have someone listening.

Richard Watts teaches communications and public policy in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Vermont and directs the Center for Research on Vermont. He is also the co-founder of a blog on sustainable transportation.
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