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Debate on mileage rules revs up in U.S. Senate

June 2, 2017
Legislation in the U.S. Senate would allow automakers to apply credits for auto pollution reduction earned after the 2009 model year to help meet federal emission standards for the model years between 2016 and 2021.
Federal auto emission rules require automakers to produce car and truck fleets that average about 41 miles per gallon by 2021. Under the current rules, deficits in fuel economy can be addressed with credits from future years or purchased from other auto companies. Credits also can be "banked and carried forward for up to five years, or carried back up to three years to cover a deficit in a previous year" under the emission rules.
Backers of the bill say the measure, known as the Fuel Economy Harmonization Act, addresses long-standing conflicts between the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy program and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Greenhouse Gas emissions programs, which the Obama administration announced in 2009 would be managed as one program.
The measure’s supporters say the change will help "streamline" federal emission standards by addressing conflicts in existing rules that are enforced by the NHTSA and the EPA. Environmentalists and consumer advocates argue the measure would weaken U.S. gas mileage rules by allowing automakers to get credit for previously achieved mileage improvements.
"The conflicting fuel economy standards that are currently in place at NHTSA and EPA drive up manufacturing costs, which are ultimately passed on to consumers," said U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who sponsored the legislation. "This bill gets us closer to one national fuel economy standard program that meets the goals of both the NHTSA and EPA programs in a less costly, more efficient way. It is a bipartisan, commonsense step we can take to lower costs and boost U.S. auto manufacturing."
The Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers, said the measure would help to fulfill regulators’ promises to "harmonize" the NHTSA and EPA fuel economy rules to prevent consumers from having to pay higher prices for cars.
"Automakers commend the sponsors of this bipartisan legislation for seeking to better align to government programs to avoid unnecessary costs that ultimately are paid by consumers," said the group, which lobbies for automakers in Washington. "We urge Congress to pass this legislation as soon as possible to help keep automobiles affordable to the widest range of customers."
Environmentalists and consumer advocates painted a starkly different picture of the legislation, arguing it is an attempt to weaken federal emission standards that automakers have wanted to weaken for years.
"This bill is another step in the automakers’ push to roll back clean car and fuel economy standards that are reducing pollution and saving drivers money at the pump," Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. 
"By providing windfall fuel-economy credits to automakers, this bill undercuts current investments in advanced, clean-car technologies that are driving innovation and job growth in the auto industry."
Shannon Baker-Branstetter, policy counsel for the Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization division of Consumer Reports, added: "Americans who depend on larger vehicles and trucks for work or family needs would suffer most. Our research has shown that under current standards, truck and SUV owners would save $4,800 over the life of their vehicle. These savings are likely to be much lower if this draft bill is approved."
The fuel-mileage rules at issue are part of federal regulations that were implemented by the Obama administration in 2012 that require automakers to produce car and truck fleets averaging more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025.
President Donald Trump’s administration is reviewing the mileage rules for the model years between 2022 and 2025 after reversing course on a decision by the Obama administration to finalize the rules ahead of schedule in the former president’s final weeks in office.
Under the current regulations, automakers face fines of $5.50 for each one-tenth of a mile-per-gallon that their average fuel economy falls short of the standard for a model year, multiplied by the total volume of vehicles sold.