Gas Guzzlers Be Gone: Obama Makes a Big Deal with the Big Three

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It’s always nice when political antagonists stop running nasty ads and work out a reasonable compromise. No, no, the insane debt-limit debate continues in Washington. But the insane gas-guzzler debate is over. On Friday, President Obama will announce a near-doubling of fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks, and the Big Three automakers — GM, Ford and Chrysler — will support it. It’s a big victory in the fight to reduce our foreign oil addiction, our carbon emissions, and our gasoline costs—and while Obama had sought a slightly bigger victory, the modest concessions he made to the automakers were a small price to pay to avoid a nasty fight in a dysfunctional Congress.

The final deal will require vehicle fleets to average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, which will reduce fuel consumption by 40% and carbon emissions by 50%. That is real change. Before Obama took office, fuel-efficiency standards hadn’t really budged since the Reagan era; now he’s ratcheted them up twice.

Yes, environmentalists had pushed for 60 m.p.g.  And the White House had floated a compromise of 56.2. But 54.5 is pretty close, considering that last year’s standards were only 28.3. And the carve-out that the White House agreed to for pickup trucks sounds reasonable; pickups are often used to pick up heavy stuff. SUVs, despite their cheetah guards and rugged Dakota/Yukon/Expedition-style branding, are generally used to pick up the kids at soccer practice. It’s not as if Obama would have been able to get a better deal in the Republican-controlled House, or even a Senate with two Democrats from Michigan.

Obama was right to cut a deal with the Big Three, along with Honda and Hyundai, up front. Every U.S. President since Nixon has talked about ending our dependence on Middle East oil, but these standards represent the most significant effort to do something about it in a long time.

If I wanted to be churlish, I might point out that the same auto industry that ran attack ads about how 56.2 would destroy their businesses and force everyone to drive electric cars has embraced 54.5 as an achievable target.  It almost makes you wonder if the automakers may have exaggerated the costs of compliance, the way they always do. It might make you wonder what would have happened if automakers had cut a similar deal in the 1990s, instead of successfully fighting off tougher standards in Congress so that they could stick to gas guzzlers and destroy their businesses on their own. It might even make you wonder where the hell companies that only exist through the generosity of the U.S. government get off trying to tell the U.S. government what to do.

But I actually don’t want to be churlish. These new fuel efficiency standards will be good for our national security, our environmental security and our economic security. And I suspect they will be good for the automakers, too.