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Outside Voices: A welcome turn

Newly announced fuel, emissions standards are long overdue

The Los Angeles Times, Wednesday: To listen to the global-warming deniers, the Obama administration’s announcement Tuesday that it plans to restrict greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles will hurt the economy, force consumers to buy cars they don’t want and endanger the lives of motorists. The opposite is closer to the truth.

Until the banking crisis overtook the issue, the nation’s top economic concern was high gasoline prices. The financial meltdown caused oil prices to plummet, but that will change when the economy recovers. Improving fuel efficiency will dramatically reduce U.S. demand, which accounts for one-quarter of the world’s oil demand. That will put far more downward pressure on prices, and do it more quickly, than opening more domestic land to drilling. …

The safety argument is based on studies that have shown past regulation of fuel efficiency increased the number of deaths in auto accidents by encouraging smaller and lighter vehicles. That’s mainly because people in lighter cars are in greater danger when they’re in accidents involving heavier ones; if everybody drove smaller cars, we’d all be safer. Future cars will have more efficient engines, transmissions and tires, none of which will affect size, and they probably will be built from lighter and stronger materials that will enhance safety. These elements will add to a new car’s cost – about $1,300 more per vehicle by 2016, according to the Obama administration – but consumers will more than make up the difference in fuel savings. …

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Thursday: The tough new emissions and mileage standards announced by the White House on Tuesday are a major step forward for automakers and the planet. …

And all it took to achieve them was the end of the Bush administration, the near-death experiences of the Big Three U.S. automakers and a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

But you’d never know that from the triumphant Rose Garden ceremony, attended by leaders of 10 international car companies, environmentalists and the governors of Michigan and California. “The fact is,” President Barack Obama told his guests, “everybody wins.”

Well, maybe not everybody.

Not former General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner. Back in 2007, when Congress was debating an energy bill, Wagoner groused that proposals to increase fuel efficiency standards 27 percent by 2020 “don’t look achievable.”

That sort of recalcitrance and unwillingness to change is one reason Wagoner wasn’t on hand for the Rose Garden ceremony Tuesday. He lost his job in March; having helped drive GM into a ditch, he nonetheless was unwilling to accept the need for sweeping changes in the way automakers do business. …

Auto executives have had to adapt to a new reality. Not long ago, they dictated policy to Congress. Their objections helped scuttle mileage standards in a 2005 energy bill and got them seriously watered down in a 2007 law.

But with Chrysler in bankruptcy and GM seemingly headed in the same direction, and with both companies receiving billions in federal assistance, Detroit’s Big Three acquiesced this time. The truth is that they didn’t have much choice … .

The Washington Post, Wednesday: … Think of all this as a three-ring circus.

In the first ring is California, which in 2002 sought to implement a vehicle emissions standard much tougher than the federal government’s. It was joined by the District of Columbia, Maryland and 12 other states. But the Golden State needed a waiver from the Environmental Protection Agency for its standard to go into effect. The Bush administration rejected the request. President Barack Obama ordered the EPA to review the decision by the end of June.

In the second ring are the automakers. Complaining of the hardship of abiding by a patchwork of regulations, they have sued to block the California rules.

And in the third are the EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which sets Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, regulations, laboring under court orders and statutory deadlines to address emissions and fuel economy.

What Obama proposed is a national plan that would settle all fights. The White House called for a boost in CAFE standards for cars and light trucks to 35.5 mpg by 2016. The program would begin ramping up with the 2012 model year. In addition, there would be a vehicle emissions standard that, when harmonized with the new CAFE standard set by NHTSA, would make the new national standard on par with that sought by California.

… Now, if the administration and Congress would consider a boost in gas taxes, more consumers would want to buy more-efficient cars. …

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