Going My Way?

The White House rolls out its strategy for taking your car farther on a gallon of gas.

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Car hunting? Soon you’ll go farther for every dollar you spend on gasoline. President Barack Obama announced new, more stringent fuel efficiency standards Tuesday that would raise the mileage of each American-made car to 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. The new law will affect cars beginning in model year 2012, and, environmentally, could make up for 30 years of unchecked American car culture.

For decades, fuel efficiency standards have remained essentially the same—even as oil became scarcer and as harmful pollution increased. In the late 1980s, auto companies successfully ducked and dodged mandated corporate average fuel economy, or “CAFE,” standards first set in 1973—which allowed them to spend the 1990s turning out millions of light trucks, SUVs and other gas guzzlers without consequences.

Now, “for the first time in history,” said Obama, “we have set in motion a national policy aimed at both increasing gas mileage and decreasing greenhouse gas pollution for all new trucks and cars sold in the United States of America.”

The agreement was diplomatic success for Carol Browner, assistant to the president for Energy and Climate Change, and debunks the idea that “czars” are of no use in the Obama executive branch. After weeks of coordinating the many moving parts of this agreement—two government agencies (Environmental Protection and Transportation), 14 states and 10 major car companies, Browner struck a final bargain over the weekend. The president appeared in the White House Rose Garden for the announcement with several members of his Cabinet and Congress, as well as environmental advocates, labor leaders and officials from companies like Ford, Chrysler, GM, Nissan, Volkswagen and BMW. Governors from key states, such as Jennifer Granholm of Michigan and Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, were also in attendance.

At the announcement, the president said the agreement would avoid the “inadequate, uncertain and in flux” bureaucracy that currently exists, and override the 2007 corporate average fuel economy law that required an average fuel economy of 35 miles per gallon by 2020. The White House contends that the new timetable—achieving 35.5 miles per gallon, four years sooner—will save 1.8 billion barrels of oil over the life of the program, and will reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 900 million metric tons. That’s the equivalent of taking 58 million cars off the road for a year.

It also means that consumers will have better choices at the dealer’s lot—more efficient cars will now automatically save them money at the pump. Obama stressed the kitchen-table case for his new standards: “If you buy a car, your investment … will pay off in just three years,” he said.

The president said at his most recent prime-time press conference that he “would love to get the U.S. government out of the auto business.” The administration hopes the new mileage standards will do just that; both by fighting climate change and by allowing troubled American automakers to compete effectively with nations like Japan and Germany, who have long had higher fuel efficiency standards.

Auto industry types seemed to be cautiously excited about the plan, too. “We’ve been working through these issues for years,” Jim O'Sullivan, president of Mazda, told The Root. “We’re happy with the process that we went through.” What’s more, the White House green team might not have been able to extract as many concessions from the automakers had not the Big Three manufacturers—GM, Ford and Chrysler—been in federal receivership. “After 20 years of dragging their feet, they realize this is the path for prosperity for them,” said Navin Nayak of the League of Conservation Voters.

The announcement also resolved longtime grudges between environmentalists, carmakers and major unions who have been waging court battles against each other for years. “We’ve been at war in California,” said Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, the former congresswoman from the state’s 32nd district—referring to the Bush-era battle over whether California could enact environmental standards that are more strict than the federal Clean Air Act. (Obama granted the state a waiver almost as soon as he took office.) “Obviously it will take a while to see the implementation of [the] bill,” added Solis, before the event, “but I think it is a win-win. It really is brilliant.”

Finally, the importance of this new plan is not limited to domestic policy: The United Nations conference on climate change in Copenhagen this December—where major economies will have one more chance to fix the plan flubbed in Kyoto—looms large. While it is entirely possible that Massachusetts Rep. Henry Waxman’s energy bill could put a price on carbon before Copenhagen, this week’s historic agreement ensures that the U.S. will have something to show when it sits down at the table with China, India, Brazil and the European community to meet the threat of climate change.  As Obama said Tuesday: “We are willing to set aside the past for the sake of the future.”

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