Should EPA give state a waiver?

State officials are in the nation’s capital this week lobbying for a waiver from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that would allow California to set its own standards for permissible carbon dioxide emissions by automobiles. The federal agency has issued 40 waivers for California in the past, but it is far from clear that the present case is justified or even legal. Among the main problems is that regulating automotive carbon dioxide emissions necessarily requires regulating fuel economy. But the Supreme Court has ruled only the EPA has authority to regulate in this area.

Things would perhaps be simpler if there were actually a conspiracy between the White House and the auto and energy industries, as alleged by California Attorney General Jerry Brown. But the reality is that, as long as the vast majority of autos on our roads are powered by carbon-based fuels, the only way to reduce the amount of carbon dioxides emitted by those vehicles is to make them use less fuel. Even under the most optimistic of scenarios, it will be decades before the majority of vehicles on California roads are powered by low or non-carbon-based fuels. Even when that happy day arrives, vehicle weight will still be Enemy No. 1 of fuel economy, so automakers will be forced to build lighter vehicles.

Lighter vehicles are typically smaller and less safe. When a 2,500 pound Chevrolet Aveo collides with a 4,500 pound Ford Expedition, occupants ofthe former tend to be more seriously injured or more often killed than those in the latter. The standards California and other states are seeking under the requested waiver would eventually mandate average fuel economy standards in excess of 40 mpg across an automaker’s entire fleet of offerings. Meeting such a standard would require a major reconfiguration of most vehicles sold in the state to make them much smaller and lighter.

Even with record-setting gas prices, though, consumers just aren’t very interested in the kind of small cars that would be able to meet a 40 mpg standard. Sales of Chevrolet’s Aveo, for example, are up 30 percent for the first four months of 2007 year to year, but the actual total is a mere 19,944 cars. Throw in the other seven vehicles in the Aveo’s size class such as the Honda Fit and the total barely tops 100,000. That’s barely a dent in a market that will see approximately 16 million vehicles sold nationwide.

A better approach would be to rely on the EPA to promulgate a reasonably achievable national standard. As Steven Douglas of the Automobile Manufacturers Alliance told Congress last week, average passenger car fuel economy has almost doubled since 1975, increasing from 14.2 mpg to 29.8 mpg. That achievement came even as manufacturers expanded the range of vehicle choices available to buyers to include minivans, sport utility vehicles and small pickups. We should think very carefully before upsetting a system that has doubled fuel economy and preserved consumer choice.

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