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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Kick Starting Better Mileage

Air Date: Week of

The President acknowledges Ford CEO Alan Mulally during the announcement on fuel-efficiency standards. (Photo: Samantha Appleton, Courtesy of the White House)

Some in Congress argue the South has little renewable energy but the municipal utility in Gainesville, Florida has created a solar boom in its corner of the region. Host Steve Curwood speaks with Ed Regan, manager at the Gainesville Regional Utility, about the city’s evolution to a green energy hub.


YOUNG: When President Obama brought the heads of the top automakers to the White House to announce new fuel efficiency standards, it was clearly big news for the auto world.

But implications for the rest of the planet are still sinking in. Each company’s cars and light trucks will have to average 35 and a half miles per gallon by the year 2016—much sooner than under current law.

The groundbreaking standards also bring the nation’s first federal regulation of greenhouse gases by applying the limits on CO2 from tailpipes that California and other states had fought for in court.

The President says the savings will be big: a cut in oil use greater than what the U.S. now imports from Saudi Arabia; and a drop in CO2 emissions equal to taking 50 million cars off the road.

OBAMA: Ending our dependence on oil, indeed, ending our dependence on fossil fuels, represents perhaps the most difficult challenge we have ever faced -- not as a party, not as a set of separate interests, but as a people. We have over the course of decades slowly built an economy that runs on oil. It has given us much of what we have -- for good but also for ill. It has transformed the way we live and work, but it's also wreaked havoc on our climate. It has helped create gains in prosperity unprecedented in history, but it also places our future in jeopardy.

YOUNG: Dan Becker was at the White House Rose Garden for that announcement. He’s spent two decades fighting for cleaner cars as an advocate with the Sierra Club and now his Safe Climate Campaign. I sat down with Becker to talk about cars and climate, and I asked him what it meant to witness this breakthrough moment in one of Washington’s oldest environmental fights.

BECKER: Oh it felt wonderful. After twenty years of fighting the auto industry, seeing the CEOs lined up in a tableau behind the President with some cabinet members and some Congresspeople – I turned to somebody and said, “It’s the good, the bad and the bankrupt.” But it really felt good. You know, I think this is a very important step forward.

YOUNG: Give me a sense of how this came together. It was just a few months ago that the industry was still fighting in court tooth and nail against this. What provided the break through? I’m guessing it has something to do with the fact that many of the major automakers were coming to Washington hat in hand to save them.

BECKER: Well it’s hard to yield the bludgeon on environmental rules when you’re shaking the tin cup in the other hand. The bailouts and the bankruptcies certainly have put pressure on the auto companies. But they’ve also run out of rope. The Congress rejected their pleas in 2007 to oppose CAFE standards and they passed the law. The Supreme Court rejected their pleas and sided with us in the Massachusetts vs. EPA case that said EPA should go ahead and regulate global warming pollution from automobiles and that states like California could go ahead with their rules. And, of course, they want vast sums of money from taxpayers. So it behooves them to act as if they get it.

YOUNG: Well, what do we know about the kind of vehicle fleet that might result when automakers, you know, have to meet this new standard?

BECKER: Well, the vehicles probably won’t look very different, because at ten miles per gallon improvement ninety plus percent of the vehicles will only change under the hood. The engines will run the car further on a gallon of gas, the transmission will allow you to shift more efficiently, the aerodynamics will push less air out of the way when you accelerate on a highway. All of those are things that can dramatically improve fuel economy and they’re all technologies that have been sitting on the shelves for the last twenty years. In the next round, the post 2016 round, that’s when we can begin a much more dramatic shift to advanced technology vehicles that run on a different kind of system that the internal combustion engine. We have to get there. But this is just a first step preliminary to that.

YOUNG: Shifting gears here slightly, pardon the pun, but what does this mean for the President’s larger strategy for addressing climate change, especially with an eye toward these international talks coming up at the end of the year?

BECKER: There are three moving parts here: the Copenhagen Treaty that you refer to, there is legislation currently on Capitol Hill, and there are the existing laws like the Clean Air Act that the President is using to raise these standards. The President is working on the last. For the purpose of the treaty negotiations, the U.S. has to come to Copenhagen with some real accomplishments and be able to point to those and say “look, we know we’ve been absent from this debate in the last eight years, but now we’re back in the game. And here are real emissions reductions that we can show you that show that we in the United States are committed to curbing global warming. And, by the way, if you’ve been hiding behind us and our inaction, those days are done.”

YOUNG: Let’s talk about cost. I’ve read estimates that meeting this will require something in the range of an additional $1300 per car, on average. How does that work for consumers?

The President acknowledges Ford CEO Alan Mulally during the announcement on Corporate Average Fleet (CAFÉ) standards. (Photo: Samantha Appleton, Courtesy of the White House)

BECKER: Well, it will certainly cost more - although its not clear that it will be $1300 more – to buy the better technology that will go into these new vehicles. The good news is that you’ll save much more than that at the gas pump over the life of the vehicle. The President said the other day that in three years you’ll save more at the pump than it cost you to get the better technology. So, this is a good deal for American consumers. It’s a good deal for us to cut our oil addition and it’s a good deal for the environment. And finally, it’s a good deal for automakers, because if they don’t start competing effectively against the Japanese manufacturers and other foreign manufacturers, they’re not going to be here anymore.

YOUNG: It’s a little sad, isn’t it, that it took the crippling of our domestic auto industry, basically, to bring this about.

BECKER: It is really tragic that the auto industry couldn’t bring itself when it was in its prime to make clean cars that Americans want and that are good for our society. We all remember, “What’s good for General Motors is good for the nation.” Well, they finally found out that what’s good for the nation is actually what’s good for General Motors. And hopefully they will be able to rebuild themselves by making the clean cars that foreign manufacturers make and sell, but that the American manufacturers had not.

YOUNG: That's Dan Becker with the Safe Climate Campaign. You can learn more about the new auto standards at our website, loe.org.

[MUSIC: Tom Verlaine “Old Car” Warm And Cool (Thrill Jockey Records)]



Read the Union of Concerned Scientists report on available technology to boost fuel economy.

Click here for the Auto Alliance statement on the fuel economy agreement.

Read the President’s remarks on announcing the new fuel standards.


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