Automakers question Calif. zero-emission mandate as feds reassess mpg rules

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Automakers appeared to make another move on Tuesday in their campaign to relax tailpipe emissions standards, arguing in testimony before a U.S. House panel that California’s zero-emissions vehicle mandate undermines the goal of a single national standard for fuel economy.

Under a graduated California law, 15 percent of new vehicles sold in the state must be powered by zero-emission powertrains by 2025. Automakers supported the ZEV mandate and nine states have followed California’s lead.

The zero-emission program favors electric, plug-in hybrid and fuel cell technology even though federal standards allow automakers to use advanced gasoline engines, lighter materials and other means to reduce fuel consumption and greenhouse gas, emissions.

The ZEV program produces no incremental nationwide green house gas emission benefits despite the high burden placed on vehicle manufacturers. Current corporate average fuel economy and green house gas emissions standards already specify each manufacturer’s total fleet-wide emissions, and therefore, in a system that averages together all vehicles in a manufacturer’s fleet, the fleet-wide emissions standards act as a cap when combined with an overall compliance fleet strategy.

The hearing took place Tuesday as the Trump administration reconsiders setting fuel economy and emissions standards, and legislation to harmonize sometimes conflicting standards among federal agencies awaits congressional action.

The Obama administration and automakers reached an agreement in 2011 on new fuel economy and greenhouse-gas emission rules, building on an earlier deal to progressively raise average fuel efficiency through the 2016 model year. When Trump was elected, the EPA accelerated a midterm assessment scheduled for April 2018 and determined in January the rules are feasible for automakers to achieve.

Automakers successfully pushed the Trump administration to reopen the midterm review of 2022-25 model year standards, arguing Obama officials locked in standards aimed at doubling fleetwide efficiency to 54.5 mpg ahead of schedule without considering whether initial assumptions about compliance costs and fuel prices panned out — and their effect on consumer demand for cleaner-burning vehicles.

Before leaving office, EPA officials under Obama dialed back the target to 50.8 mpg in an acknowledgment that consumer demand for fuel efficient vehicles was weaker than originally projected.

Trump officials went a step further and are also studying the 2021 standards.

The attack on the California ZEV mandate is the latest effort by automakers to slow implementation of fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas standards for vehicles. California has taken the lead on clean-air regulations because many cities have severe particle and ozone pollution.

Automakers have criticized the ZEV program in the past, but are now tying it to the midterm review of the fuel economy and GHG emissions standards.

Automakers are making huge investments in electric vehicle designs and accelerating production plans in recognition that global markets are moving away from fossil-fuel combustion engines, but Bozzella insisted the ZEV mandate hurts the single national program, which combines EPA, NHTSA and California’s separate low-emission standards.

The negotiated agreement benefited automakers because they didn’t have to go through the extra expense of manufacturing vehicles with different emissions capabilities for different regions of the country.

Several international automakers and suppliers with U.S. operations, said the ZEV mandate has cost the auto industry $24 billion.

Manufacturers are also offering consumers massive incentives — in some instances as high as tens of thousands of dollars — to get them to buy electric-drive vehicles. The reality is that consumers are not embracing these technologies at the desired or projected rates, especially in states that are not investing sufficiently in the charging and hydrogen infrastructure needed to support the vehicles.

Electric vehicles represented 0.7 percent of nationwide sales in 2016, according to vehicle registration data compiled by IHS Markit. California and seven of the other ZEV states have committed to take steps to support the sale of 3.3 million ZEV vehicles by 2025.

The ZEV mandate has done more to push automakers toward electrification than any other factor, including competition from all-electric manufacturer Tesla Inc.

Consumers are not willing to buy expensive fuel-saving technologies when gasoline prices are low, they prefer SUVs and crossovers over cars, and will hold onto existing vehicles longer if new ones are un-affordable.

He strongly disagreed with the EPA’s assessment last year that manufacturers can mostly meet the fuel standards with advanced gasoline vehicles, citing a recent study by SAE International, Novation Analytics and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory that estimates nearly every vehicle sold in the U.S. in the 2025 model year will need to be a hybrid, or the overall fleet will need to consist of greater than 30 percent full hybrids for compliance.

But automakers are not doing a good job marketing alternative fuel vehicles, Andrew Linhardt, deputy legislative director for transportation at the Sierra Club, said in an interview.

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