Obama Re-Evaluates State Emissions: Is One Standard Needed?

Obamalahood Yesterday, President Barack Obama ordered the EPA to re-evaluate the request of California and 13 other states to set and regulate their own emissions standards on cars.

To many, this is a clear-cut issue, with California’s supporters saying they have the right to set emissions how they see fit for their state because factors like congestion and pollution are much different from one state — like California — to another — like North Dakota.

Environmentalists see this is as a win because stricter emissions standards mean less pollution and presumably higher-mileage vehicles. Automakers and other industry supporters say it will be too costly to design cars for different markets within the U.S.

So, who’s right? Well, neither and both.

Hold on, we have to pull out our soap box for a second: The problem we have in the U.S. is that there’s a federal guideline for fuel efficiency, called CAFE, which the president recently agreed to strengthen, with tougher requirements coming as soon as next year. We also have mileage ratings issued by the EPA, which show up on new cars’ window stickers. These are not the same as the CAFE numbers, yet the EPA uses a sizeable budget determining these important figures that car shoppers use every day.

The EPA also has an “air pollution score” it assigns all new vehicles, although it doesn’t take greenhouse gases into account.   

New emissions standards set on a state-by-state basis would add yet another regulation.
So instead of setting three or four different standards, wouldn’t it be easier to implement one national one? That way, states with huge budget problems, like California, wouldn’t have to take on the expense of regulating something as unwieldy as emissions. It would also help greatly if the formula were cleaner than the current CAFE ratings.

Recently, we here at Cars.com came up with the True Mileage Index, which showed just how fuel-efficient various automaker lineups truly are. It was a tough task, but it opened our eyes as to how far away we really are from 30-mpg averages.

We’re not against cleaner cars, we’re all for them. But adding layers of government regulations instead of perfecting the ones we already have seems like an unnecessary move. 

By David Thomas | January 27, 2009 | Comments (12)
Tags: In The News


Derrick G

One thing to note is that so far we're talking only two standards. Every one of the 13 states that have adopted stricter standards have adopted California's. That's no surprise considering how they started regulating such before the feds and have lots of experience and staff. So it's really a matter of a Federal standard and a California standard that 13 other states follow.

Derrick G,
But what if North Dakota doesn't like a future CAFE standard and wants more trucks?

I think my main issues are:
The govt is spending money on CAFE and EPA. Why not just one?

and 2
If California gets its way there could be wild price spikes on certain vehicles like large SUVs if supply is limited by Govt interference. Hurting some customers who may need and or want that vehicle for any reason. Heck, Minivans won't meet these requirements!!!


On the one hand we have the government lending zillions of dollars to car companies to keep them afloat.

On the other hand we have the government allowing a state to set its own mileage requirements, which makes it harder for those companies to stay in business.

On the one hand, we have the government requiring companies to meet CAFE standards. On the other hand, we have the government forbidding US makers from importing smaller, cheaper cars and using those cars to meat their fleet CAFE standard.

On the one hand we have the government banning virtually all drilling for new oil or gas, an economic stimulus that would cost taxpayers zero. On the other hand, we have the government wanting to spend a TRILLION bucks on economic "stimulus", including hundreds of millions for such economic "stimulus" as contraceptives, the National endowment for the Arts, and new grass for the national mall.

Ever wonder why many people think that government is made up of total idiots?


They should offer carbon credits for driving only at night. These would be called nocturnal emissions.


The issue here really has never been a question of government regulation, the debate from the beginning has been about states' rights.
The supreme court has clearly decided that states have the right to regulate what pollution is allowed in their own territory, hence California's long standing requirements on low emission vehicles, etc. It wasn't until just recently that California decided to regulate not just NOx, SOx, PM, etc., but also CO2. The EPA holds that a CO2 regulation is a backdoor fuel efficiency requirement, which has long been their domain. Of course they are right, you can't reduce CO2 emissions without reducing fuel consumption without some ridiculous scheme.
Thus the question arises, can California set a fuel efficiency standard separate from the national one in order to regulate pollution within its own borders? Whether or not it is an efficient beaurocratic system isn't the issue, it is all about constitutional separation of rights of the federal governments versus the states.

Derrick G

Your ND example is a specious one. No state would be allowed to have a LOWER standard than the federal one. The system California and the other 13 states are petitioning for in fact has already been in place.

The new twist is whether or not Calif. is regulating and can regulate fuel economy with its new emission standards. It's true it's silly that the Feds have both CAFE and EPA standards and yes consolidation would be great, but the only logical option there would be to make the EPA window sticker figures the ones for meeting CAFE standards which would still end up restricting supply of large vehicles, because they'd be harder yet to meet.

That said, I find it hard to believe that supply would be so restricted that those who truly need such a vehicle would be priced out of the market. Indeed, this summer proved that the demand for such vehicles is HIGHLY elastic with just free-market forces. And had we had the "government interference" from the 1970's actually hold, we wouldn't be facing such an urgent need for such high standards today. We have to pay the bill sometime and now's cheaper than later.

I was kind of half kidding about N. Dakota, but if you put the right to regulate in the hands of one state I don't see how they wouldn't be able to argue the other way around, because you would take it out of the feds control.

The current emissions controls on cars in Cali and a few other states do impact the type of cars sold and if you look at fueleconomy.gov you can see what they are. Automakers have to tweak their cars to meet those standards. Why ULEV II vehicles aren't sold everywhere doesn't make much sense to me but what do I know.

I also haven't heard how much more stringent these new rules would be over ULEVII (if it's PZEV or ZEV) and if car companies have researched how to meet them and when they'd need to be put in place.


There's no evidence California's regulations would have an appreciable impact on global climate change. Cars and trucks accounted for only 17% of the nation's greenhouse-gas emissions. California's new rules would reduce that by 3% by 2020 – in their state only.

Also, can automakers even achieve a 39-42 mpg average by 2020 (which is essentially what California’s mandate will force)? No – not even media darlings Toyota or Honda could achieve this.

There is no technology that can achieve that sort of fuel efficiency in the fleets we have today. California's standards are virtually unobtainable unless everyone starts buying compact cars with hybrid systems, meaning those cars are going to be less powerful; and less safe and they're going to cost probably $3,000-4,000 more than comparable compact cars today. Imagine spending $25,000 on a Corolla or $35-45,000 on a Camry in California by 2016-2020 – that will be the reality!

California's rules are also unfair and biased towards the rich and the automakers that cater to the rich. The rules would only apply to automakers who averaged at least 60,000 vehicles over three years. These rules then only apply to the volume car makers, like the Detroit automakers and the three largest Japanese firms. Companies like Volkswagen, BMW, Mercedes, Porsche and Bentley – would be exempt. So while California's plan is hurting poor and middle class American's – the rich can still drive their thirsty gas hogs. Small businesses would also be hurt, like local contractors, who would no longer be able to afford new pickups or vans without spending inordinate amounts of money on them.

Also the rules would not apply to new competitors, such as automakers from China or India – giving them an entry into our country, further destroying our manufacturing base and the good middle income/working class jobs.

How does any of this help the middle-income families Democrats are supposedly the advocates of?

Derrick G

There would still be, like always, two markets to make for: those states who adopt California's standard and those who don't. There's no way another state could prove to the EPA they have worse pollution than Calif. so that'd be the ceiling. It's extremely unlikely that any other state would go to the extreme trouble of trying to make their own regulations somewhere between the federal standard and California's and even less likely that the EPA would grant them a waiver. But even if they did, the solution is simple: those states get cars certified for Calif. Afterall, there's no MINIMUM level of emissions, only a maximum one. So this is truly a big smokescreen to be talking about a patch-work of regulations. There'd only be two markets, just as there has been for years.

That said, Colin has a point and California's regulations shouldn't be allowed to go in effect as written. But they wouldn't only affect California, as the other thirteen states would follow them, too. Asking the EPA to reconsider sets the stage for California to work with the other thirteen states and the EPA to come up with more reasonable rules. As it was, the process was closed.

Original sheth

This proposal is insanity at this point in time. We already have an agreement to go to 35mpg by 2020 and California wants to improve upon that. This the definition of an unfunded mandate and its based on bad science. The same people who are pusing this supposedly believe in science when it comes to global warming and evolution. They need to remember that engineering, physics and science are all related. There is no way to keep the types of vehicles we have today and acheive California's standards. The problem with all of this is that politicians (who wouldnt have lasted one semester of an engineering curriculum) think that automakers can easily achieve these figures by working a little harder. These politicians naively believe that 35mpg and 43mpg cars could be made if the automakers simply stopped holding back and pushing gas guzzlers. That is not the case. To allow these changes to the law after the government loaned money to GM and Chrysler is crazy. There is no way they will be able to invest in the technologies necessary to attempt to meet these standards.


A cohereant energy policy (i.e. gas tax) would make the differences between Federal and State regs go away: customers would demand fuel efficient vehicles because it makes sense. No need to legislate.

Cynically speaking, maybe that's why Obama's backing CA: a gas tax is in the cards, so why not allow states to impose regs that will be rendered obsolete by customer demand for 35+ MPG cars?

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