- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Washington Auto Show this week is the backdrop for a high-stakes fight between environmentalists and the American auto industry, with each side pressing its case ahead of a key Trump administration decision on whether to relax national fuel economy standards.

On one side of the debate are groups such as the Sierra Club, which launched online ads this week — aimed at Washington and surrounding markets during the auto show — saying Ford is leading the charge to slow the fuel economy program started by President Obama in 2009. The commercial says Ford is trying to roll back the standards “so it can make cars with worse gas mileage than the Model T.”

“Ford may be trying to put on a good show, but behind closed doors, it has been working with Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt to roll back our single biggest defense against dangerous climate pollution. Ford’s claims of sustainability in its advertising and here at the auto show are nothing more than greenwashing,” said Andrew Linhardt, the Sierra Club’s deputy legislative director.

The iconic Detroit automaker has fired back by touting its investments in green technology and rapid improvements in the overall fuel efficiency of its fleet.

“We are driving carbon reductions with more hybrids, plug-in hybrids and battery electric vehicles. It will be our strongest global electrified product offering, and we are investing $11 billion to put these new electric vehicles on the road,” Ford spokeswoman Christin Baker said Thursday. “We support a clean car standard based on a data-driven review agreed with President Obama. We fully expect future fuel economy requirements will be more rigorous, but they should consider affordability and consumer demand as well.”

Government, environmentalists and the auto sector widely agree that the clean-car program known as the Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE standards, should remain in place. But automakers want the Trump administration to adjust the rules to reflect market realities — chiefly that Americans, because of low gasoline prices, are buying more trucks and SUVs, throwing a wrench into the fuel economy projections laid out nine years ago.

Under the initial timeline set forth by the Environmental Protection Agency, vehicle fleets were supposed to average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. The Obama administration in 2016 reduced that target to 50.8 mpg.

The Trump administration will decide later this year whether to make more adjustments; the president ordered a review of the program during his first months in office.

Automakers say changes are needed because the calculations used when the program was created — that Americans increasingly would buy high-mpg cars, or electric and hybrid models — has proved false.

“Right now, consumers have more choice than ever in energy-efficient vehicles, and we want to sell those high-mileage vehicles in greater numbers,” said Gloria Bergquist, spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. “With low gas prices, larger vehicles are selling briskly — far more than the government anticipated when it set the fuel economy [and] greenhouse gas targets in 2012. These are facts that the [Trump administration’s] midterm review needs to address.”

The EPA projected in 2016 that the mix of vehicles on the road by 2025 would be 52 percent cars and 48 percent light trucks. Today, the mix is almost the opposite: 44 percent cars and 56 percent light trucks.

Still, auto manufacturers have made considerable progress since the program began. Average fuel economy in 2016 increased to 24.7 mpg, a record high though a much smaller increase than in previous years. Under the program, cars can either meet mpg targets by improving performance in their own fleets or by buying credits from companies such as Tesla that offer highly efficient vehicles.

The difficulty, some analysts say, is that companies simply will pull back on innovation unless government compels them to keep pressing forward.

“Manufacturers are always going to want more time, more flexibility. That’s just the mindset. … I don’t blame them for that. On the other hand, it doesn’t mean they can’t do it,” said John German, a senior fellow at the International Council on Clean Transportation who has worked at the EPA, Chrysler and Honda.

From the industry’s perspective, the fear is that current car-buying habits will continue and it will be impossible to achieve the 2025 targets if Americans keep seeking out trucks and SUVs.

“Ignoring consumer preferences and market realities will drive up costs for buyers and threaten future production levels, putting hundreds of thousands and perhaps as many as a million jobs at risk,” leaders of Ford, General Motors, Honda, Kia, Mazda and other top auto companies wrote in a letter to Mr. Trump shortly after his inauguration.

Still, some analysts say automakers could do more, regardless of consumer trends.

“They’re doing the bare minimum, or maybe a little bit better, because that’s what’s required,” said Dave Cooke, senior vehicles analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Where we get frustrated, and where this is part of the problem, is they say, ‘The technology that’s out there, this is it, this is all we can put on the vehicle.’ When you look at the market, there are plenty of [more advanced] technologies out there.”

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