Posted by David Lungren


President Obama's announcement last Friday that his Administration is contemplating fuel economy standards beyond 2016 resurrected a familiar canard in the debate on the Murkowski disapproval resolution.  To wit: the resolution would overturn the "historic" auto emissions deal struck last May between the Obama Administration (EPA, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, and Carol Browner), auto executives, and the state of California.  By overturning EPA's endangerment finding, Murkowski's detractors say, the administration's new fuel economy standards will vanish into thin air. 

The one problem with this view is that it's wrong.  Just ask the Obama Administration.  "As a strictly legal matter," according to a February 19 letter by Kevin Vincent, NHTSA's general counsel, "the Murkowski resolution does not directly impact NHTSA's statutory authority to set fuel economy standards under the Energy Policy and Conservation Act (EPCA), as amended by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007(EISA)."  [Emphasis added]  We recognize the varied opinions on increasing corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards, but we need not delve into them here.  Congress gave explicit authority to NHTSA to regulate fuel economy under the EPCA and that authority was amended by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. The main point is that, as Vincent conceded, if Murkowski became law, NHTSA's work would continue unimpeded because the resolution would only affect EPA's new administratively-created GHG authority, and not NHTSA's CAFE authority rooted in statute.

And NHTSA's work represents the lion's share of the auto deal.  As EPA explained, "The CAFE standards address most, but not all, of the real world CO2 emissions."  In the end, EPA's rule amounts to about 4 percent of the program's emissions reductions.  Also of note is the fact that EPA and NHTSA established a "single national program" for cars and light duty trucks.  In other words, there is little difference between the respective agencies' rules.  As EPA explained:

[EPA and NHTSA] have harmonized many elements of program design, such as the form of the standard (the footprint-based attribute curves), and the definitions used for cars and trucks. They have developed the same or similar compliance flexibilities, to the extent allowed and appropriate under their respective statutes, such as averaging, banking, and trading of credits, and have harmonized the compliance testing and test protocols used for purposes of the fleet average standards each agency is finalizing. Finally, under their respective statutes, each agency is called upon to exercise its judgment and determine standards that are an appropriate balance of various relevant statutory factors. Given the common technical issues before each agency, the similarity of the factors each agency is to consider and balance, and the authority of each agency to take into consideration the standards of the other agency, both EPA and NHTSA are establishing standards that result in a harmonized National Program.

Not only is there little difference between the two rules, but when it comes to reducing global warming, EPA's rule is utterly meaningless.  EPA has disputed the view that the rule's climate impacts "are small and therefore not meaningful."  Yet EPA shortly thereafter quantifies what the impact of the rule will be. To put it mildly, it is less than impressive: "Based on the reanalysis the results for projected atmospheric CO2 concentrations are estimated to be reduced by an average of 2.9 ppm (previously 3.0 ppm), global mean temperature is estimated to be reduced by 0.006 to 0.0015 °C by 2100."  This amount is so miniscule it can't even be measured by a ground-based thermometer.  Oh, and for good measure, EPA says that sea level rise is "projected to be reduced by approximately 0.06-0.14 cm by 2100." 

What the foregoing shows is that the "auto deal" defense fails to measure up.  What does measure up is the Murkowski resolution overturning the endangerment finding fiasco along with EPA's costly and environmentally futile greenhouse gas regulatory regime.