Not Your Average Fuel Economy

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Last month, the Obama administration revealed its new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) standards which will require new vehicle fleets to average 35.5 mpg by 2016. You may recall an earlier announcement in May, but the details had not been worked out yet. As usual, the devil is in the details. Now we learn through a plan released jointly by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Transportation that the new standards come with a subtle but startling twist. In addition to meeting more stringent fuel standards, for the first time new vehicles will have to meet greenhouse gas emission targets as well.

The campaign to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in this country is nothing new. Most notoriously, this summer the U.S. House of Representatives approved the Waxman Markey Cap-and-Trade bill designed to raise prices on the energy sources we rely on the most. But not everyone may be aware of an ongoing strategy to skirt Congress and implement greenhouse gas restrictions via the EPA’s authority under the Clean Air Act (CAA). President Obama wasted no time instructing his EPA administrator Lisa Jackson in February to take the necessary steps to classify greenhouses gases, such as carbon dioxide, as pollutants, a necessary precondition for regulation.

This approach is almost universally recognized as problematic even by proponents of emissions cuts since the CAA is designed to control local pollutants, not ubiquitous and natural gases critical to life on the planet. But in a year of tea parties, spirited town halls and a more cautious upper chamber of Congress, proponents will take what they can get—even if it causes serious problems for the country and its economy. The new greenhouse gas vehicle emissions standard is just the beginning of a multi-step strategy to meet the goals of Waxman-Markey legislation without the nuisance of legislative approval.

Indeed, just seven days after the new vehicle standard was released the EPA announced it would begin monitoring greenhouse gas emissions from not just mobile sources like cars and trucks but stationary sources like businesses and energy sources. This gets tricky. To sidestep some of the larger (but not the only) problems associated with using the CAA, the EPA plans to ignore the CAA’s trigger emission level of 250 tons per year and arbitrarily substitute 25,000 tons per year. This might sound like good news for those who like to see the government tread as lightly as possible on our economy. The problem is this will surely invite litigation by environmentalists who want to see the CAA followed as written. The result will be a regulatory cascade in doses they hope will be small enough for us to swallow. Many are calling this move a breach in the separation of powers since the executive branch is blatantly manipulating the letter of the law to suit its own purposes. In response, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) has indicated she will offer an amendment to EPA’s 2010 fiscal spending bill that would halt this effort to regulate stationary sources.

Fuel economy standards, even the ones we are used to, are misguided. Fuel efficiency gains drive up the price of cars and usually come at the additional cost of vehicle weight which makes our cars less safe. Couple this with an unprecedented greenhouse gas regulatory scheme and this administration is pushing the nation headlong down a tricky regulatory road that promises to cause legal, economic and safety problems for our country. Meanwhile many of us naively thought that when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we were making this decision together through our elected leaders in Congress.

Susan Lynn, R-Lebanon, is Chairman of the House Government Operations Committee and is in her fourth term.

Printed in the Nashville Tennessean

Most sincerely,

Susan Lynn
State Representative
57th District
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