When President Obama announced a deal between the White House and automakers to dramatically increase fuel-economy standards for cars and light trucks by 2025, some environmentalists said a built-in midterm review of the standards would give industry an escape clause that it might invoke.
But about two-thirds of National Journal Energy and Environment Insiders polled expressed confidence that automakers will achieve the full 54.5 miles per gallon goal by 2025, an increase of 19 mpg from the 2016 standard of 35.5 mpg. The new agreement announced Friday covers the years 2017 to 2025.
Of the 38 Insiders participating in the NJ poll, 45 percent called it “very likely” that the 54.5 mpg mark would be reached by 2025, and another 21 percent called it “somewhat likely.”
As part of Obama’s deal with the auto industry, the White House agreed to review the standards in 2018 – in effect acknowledging that the goals are not absolute and could still be lowered if the auto industry finds reaching them too difficult. Dan Weiss, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, called the review provision a “self-destruct button” and “loophole” that could act as a disincentive for the auto industry to innovate. (Weiss is not an NJ Insider and did not take part in the poll.)
But many NJ Insiders said automakers already have the technology to make major increases in fuel economy – with a growing fleet of hybrid and electric vehicles leading the way. “The only way to accomplish a goal is to actually set one,” said one Insider. “The auto industry will absolutely get to 54.5 by 2025. … If we can put a man on the moon, why not 54.5 mpg in 14 years?”
Insiders overwhelmingly agreed that hybrid and electric vehicles stand to gain the most among alternative-fuel vehicles. About 50 percent cited hybrids as the big winners, with 40 percent citing electric vehicles. Only 5 percent said they expect natural gas-powered automobiles to gain the most from the new deal. None of the Insiders pointed to zero-carbon-emission hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles, which are still in development.
“Hybrid is the most likely to succeed for the next decade,” one Insider said. “If battery price can come down, all-electric could lead the way beyond that.”
Despite the optimistic outlook of the majority, about a third of Insiders still expressed skepticism that that the 54.5 mpg fuel efficiency goal will be reached by 2025. Of those responding to NJ, 16 percent called it “very unlikely,” and 18 percent called it “somewhat unlikely.”
“The plan is more about political theater and giving the administration a win than it is about achieving stringent fuel economy standards,” said one Insider. Others questioned whether a 54.5 mpg benchmark is realistic, with one Insider calling the goal “completely impossible” without dramatic improvements in technology.
Another Insider said the process will be anything but smooth, forecasting “a set of gimmicks, loopholes, and resets that will provide a field day for lobbyists, headaches for manufacturers, and perverse incentives for consumers.”
What's the likelihood of the country achieving a 54.5 mpg average fuel economy standard by 2025?
- Very Likely 45%
- Somewhat Likely 21%
- Somewhat Unlikely 18%
- Very Unlikely 16%
“To borrow a phrase that auto manufacturers will certainly follow, ‘We can build it. We have the technology. We can make vehicles better than they were. Better ... stronger ... more efficient.’”
“We need to get there and the technology exists to make it happen.”
“Fourteen years is a long time. Hybrid technology should deliver in a big way by then."
“It will be something of a numbers game but the EV (electric vehicles) can make the books balance.”
“Don't underestimate the power of the auto sector or the anti-government crowd to try to slow down regulations and implementation.”
“The standards can be achieved, but the question is whether the average American family will be able to afford a new car.”
“Increased efficiency from good old fashioned internal combustion engines will provide the lion share of the increased average, but a 50%-plus increase in nine years (phase-in begins in 2017) isn't likely.”
“There are a multitude of credits and caveats built into the proposal announced last week with much fanfare that should make folks skeptical about 54.5 being an absolute or realistic target. That said, the behavior of the auto sector to this pressure from the Obama White House reminds one of France's approach to aggression -- premature surrender without much of a fight.”
“The smallest cars that nobody really want get only 37 mpg under EPA's generous program. ... How the average ever going to get there without a massive technology shift -- that I just don't see."
“The proposed plan has loopholes that will lower the total.”
“That is a 30 mpg climb in 12 model years. Completely impossible unless there is some immediate dramatic breakthrough in EVs (electric vehicles). It is this decade's ethanol policy.”
“The plan is more about political theater and giving the administration a win than it is about achieving stringent fuel economy standards.”
“A real fleet-wide average of 54.5 mpg won't happen in the absence of game-changing technology.”
Which type of alternate-fuel vehicle stands to gain the most as a result of the deal to raise fuel economy standards to 54.4 mpg by 2025?
- Hybrid 50%
- Electric 40%
- Natural Gas 5%
- Hydrogen Fuel Cell 0%
- Volunteered 5%
“Short term? Hybrids are ready today -- they'll just be turning over the keys to electrics in 2025.”
“Many alternatives can benefit, but hybrids are the most infrastructure compatible in the next decade.”
“Can we quit pretending that all-electric cars will be anything but niche vehicles? Ask somebody who was in last January's rush-hour nightmare how much they would have wanted an all-battery car. They couldn't have run the heater for very long, and if they were one of the lucky thousands whose homes lost power, the car would have been useless the next day as well.”
“Of the choices, (hybrid) is the only one that has a gas or diesel engine in it. Electric, nat gas and hydrogen simply cannot compete with a liquid fuel powered vehicle.”
“Diesel may gain also.”
“The EV is the big winner and air quality may be the big loser. Coal fired electric power makes this the dirtiest transportation mode according to a National Research Council study on the externalities of energy.”
“Large trucks and SUV's - the details of this plan will create a perverse incentive for manufacturers to market large trucks and SUV's, which are essentially exempt from increasingly stringent CAFE standards.”
“Probably all... Or none if the companies don't make a vehicle that consumers like.”
National Journal’s Energy and Environment Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of energy policy experts. They include:
Jeff Anderson, Paul Bailey, Kenneth Berlin, Denise Bode, Kevin Book, David Brown, Neil Brown, Stephen Brown, Kateri Callahan, McKie Campbell, Guy Caruso, Paul Cicio, Douglas Clapp, Eileen Claussen, Steve Cochran, Phyllis Cuttino, Kyle Danish, Lee Dehihns, Robbie Diamond, Bob Dinneen, Sean Donahue, Jeff Duncan, John Felmy, Mike Ference, David Foster, Josh Freed, Don Furman, Paul Gilman, Richard Glick, Kate Gordon, Chuck Gray, Jason Grumet, Christopher Guith, Lewis Hay, Jeff Holmstead, David Holt, Skip Horvath, Bob Irvin, Bill Johnson, Gene Karpinski, Joseph T. Kelliher, Brian Kennedy, Kevin Knobloch, David Kreutzer, Fred Krupp, Tom Kuhn, Con Lass, Mindy Lubber, Frank Maisano, Drew Maloney, Roger Martella, John McArther, Mike McKenna, Bill McKibben, David Miller, Kristina Moore, Richard Myers, Aric Newhouse, Frank O'Donnell, Mike Olson, T. Boone Pickens, Thomas Pyle, Hal Quinn, Rhone Resch, Barry Russell, Joseph Schultz, Bob Simon, Scott Sklar, Bill Snape, Jeff Sterba, Christine Tezak, Susan Tierney, Andrew Wheeler, Brian Wolff, Franz Wuerfmannsdobler and Todd Young.
This article appears in the August 3, 2011 edition of NJ Daily.