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COLUMNISTS

Oped: Environmental rule saves motorists money

Michael E. Kraft
Tribune News Service

In 2012, the Obama administration finalized rules to raise the fuel efficiency standard for cars and light trucks to 54.5 miles per gallon by the year 2025.

FILE - In this June 30, 2016, file photo, gas is pumped into vehicles at a BP gas station in Hoboken, N.J. The Obama administration has decided not to change government fuel economy requirements for cars and light trucks despite protests from automakers. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

The rules were crafted with the consensus of automakers, auto workers, environmental and energy experts, and state governments that wanted to develop a consistent nationwide standard and create regulatory certainty going forward.

The standard, as set, will reduce gasoline consumption, save consumers money, improve air quality and public health, and decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

The rules will also bring important gains in energy security that will flow from lowering the nation's dependence on imported oil. The results in vehicle efficiency already are impressive, with much more to come.

According to an Environmental Protection Agency economic analysis for the years 2017-2025, these kinds of benefits will outweigh anticipated costs three to one — even though many benefits were not taken into account or were not fully measured in the analysis. In other words, the fuel economy rules are a good deal for us as a nation.

Yet some members of Congress think we should toss out these standards or significantly lower them. Doing so would be a poor policy choice and not in our long-run interest.

No doubt the current low price of gasoline is one reason for congressional concern. With cheap gas, more people are now buying large SUVs. It will be tougher for automakers to meet the fuel economy standards under these conditions.

That's not to mention that some folks today still reject the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change and oppose both the EPA's Clean Power Plan and the auto fuel efficiency standards because of that. However, there are plenty of reasons to support increased fuel efficiency that have nothing to do with climate change.

For example, industry leaders typically like to have some certainty about federal and state regulations, and we have that with the auto efficiency rules.

Do we really want to back off and return to variable and uncertain state standards for vehicle emissions? And would doing so be fair to automakers that already have invested a great deal in making their vehicles more efficient and developing new technologies to that end?

From an economic perspective, reducing fossil fuel use by raising gasoline taxes or creating a carbon fee would be more efficient than relying on regulation. This is particularly true given the current low cost of gasoline. However, too little political support exists to adopt either of these options.

The only viable alternative is regulation, which is why the Obama administration negotiated agreements with auto companies on the fuel efficiency standards.

Moreover, the EPA and the Department of Transportation, which jointly administer the rules, continue to work very closely with auto companies on how the rules will be applied.

Consequently, the standards should be recognized for the consensus they reflect. They make a lot of sense for automakers, vehicle owners and the nation.

It is not surprising, therefore, that a comprehensive and peer-reviewed study in 2015 found that the efficiency standards "would lead to increased U.S. economic and job growth, both within the auto industry and throughout the economy."

How so? Consider transportation innovation. We are at the beginning of major technological change in vehicle concepts and design, from automatic braking and other safety systems to self-driving vehicles.

To meet the new fuel economy standards, vehicle manufacturers are exploring new engineering approaches, from lighter components to greatly improved battery technologies. There will be profitable markets globally for the products that result.

These kinds of developments are likely to help the U.S. become more economically competitive and resilient in a shifting and uncertain world economy.

Such changes are very much in our economic interest. And if they improve air quality and public health and reduce greenhouse gas emissions along the way, that's even better.

— Michael Kraft is a professor emeritus of political science and public and environmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay.