The CAFE standard quickly is becoming a carbon-dioxide emissions rule. The fastest way to cut CO2 emissions is to reduce the amount of carbon in fuel, through ethanol blends. Auto makers need to craft a strategy that puts the onus on the oil industry to carry the load.
It’s a simple fact. The oil lobby is far more effective than the automotive lobby. Oil companies are better at getting their way in Washington D.C. than auto makers, specifically when it comes to reducing emissions.
Back in the 1980s, there was a raging debate about evaporative emissions. When motorists fill up, enough fuel evaporates through the nozzle to make a noticeable difference in air quality. This is why you often hear warnings not to fill your tank on hot, high-ozone days during the summer.
The decision regulators faced then was to mandate evaporative emissions-control systems on every vehicle sold in the U.S., or require evaporative traps on every fuel pump at every station.
If they had required every gas station to modify its pumps, it would have been a one-time change and that would have been that. Instead, regulators forced auto makers to put elaborate evaporative emissions control systems on every vehicle they make, even though it’s not as effective.
Manufacturing and installing those evaporative control systems on millions of vehicles every year probably produces as much pollution as they’re designed to save. Why didn’t we just put them on the gas station pumps, which are better at trapping those vapors? Because the oil lobby didn’t want its members to absorb that cost, so they dumped it on the auto industry instead.
Now, government regulators are leaning heavily on the automotive industry to do the yeoman’s job of reducing carbon-dioxide emissions. In fact, the corporate average fuel economy rules slowly are being turned into de facto CO2-reduction legislation. This despite the fact that in the U.S. light vehicles only account for about 18% of those emissions.
The fastest way to cut CO2 emissions is to reduce the amount of carbon in fuel, through ethanol blends or other measures. So why aren’t regulators going after the source of carbon emissions? Because the oil lobby doesn’t want it. It’s fighting the EPA’s move to introduce E15, gasoline blended with 15% ethanol, which burns cleaner than the E10 currently on the market. Strangely enough, auto makers also are against E15. I think they’re being short sighted.
In 2017, CAFE standards will be reviewed to determine if the 54.5-mpg (4.3 L/100 km) target for 2025 is reasonable and achievable. Privately, auto makers tell me they only signed up to the 54.5-mpg target because of that review. They tell me they can’t do it. EVs and hybrids are not selling well enough to allow auto makers to hit the CAFE numbers, and conventional technology falls short. But no auto maker will publicly declare its opposition to the CAFE standard because it would be political suicide.
Here’s what’s likely to happen. Thanks to the shale-oil and natural-gas boom, the U.S. soon will be a net energy exporter. That obviates the need for the CAFE standard that was enacted right after the 1973 oil embargo to put the country on the path to energy independence.
But like I said, the CAFE standard quickly is becoming a CO2 standard. The political pressure will be enormous to leave that standard in place to fight climate change. So auto makers need to craft a strategy to put the onus on the oil industry to carry the load. They had better start now shaping public opinion. Otherwise Big Oil will easily push the problem back on them. It has a better lobby.
John McElroy is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer of “Autoline” for WTVS-Channel 56, Detroit, and “Autoline Daily,” the online video newscast.