Could Romney Actually Roll Back New MPG Standards?

Dumping Obama's 54.5 mpg fuel efficiency rules is far easier said than done, experts say. The only way 'is to effectively disband the EPA.'

Mitt Romney addresses the Detroit Economic Club on Feb. 24, 2012. Credit: Austen
Mitt Romney addresses the Detroit Economic Club on Feb. 24, 2012. Credit: Austen Hufford, flickr

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Mitt Romney has come out strongly against the Obama administration’s newest fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks—rules his campaign calls “extreme.”

The Republican presidential nominee says that if he takes office next year, he’ll consider rolling back the fuel standards, which require car manufacturers to make drastically cleaner and more efficient cars over time.

In June, Romney told The Detroit News that he’d seek “a better way of encouraging fuel economy” than the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) requirements. A campaign spokesperson recently reiterated Romney’s opposition, saying that any savings consumers see from CAFE at the pump “will be wiped out by having to pay thousands of dollars more upfront for unproven technology that they may not even want.”

But changing the new vehicle rules is easier said than done, according to clean-car and auto experts interviewed by InsideClimate News. While Romney could indeed water down or severely limit the standards, he’d face so many hurdles that it seems unlikely he would choose that path.

“I think what [Romney] is trying to do is articulate a philosophy. I don’t necessarily view that as an indicator of what he would do if he was in office,” said Jeremy Anwyl, vice chairman of, an auto information company. “In the practical sense, if he was president I think he would find the circumstances would constrain him.”

The Romney campaign didn’t respond to questions about the governor’s position on the CAFE standards in time for publication.

How He Could Do It

To alter the vehicle standards, Romney would have to work closely with the two federal agencies responsible for writing them. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets the standards for greenhouse gas emissions from cars. The Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) sets the rules for fuel efficiency.

Romney could start by ordering them to lower the standards the Obama administration has set for model years 2012 to 2016. Those rules require automakers to boost the average fuel economy of new cars and light-duty trucks by about 15 percent over the five-year period, to 34.1 miles per gallon. Greenhouse emissions should drop by more than one-fifth, to the equivalent of 35.5 miles per gallon.

But the altered rules couldn’t go into effect until model year 2015 at the earliest. According to David Friedman, deputy director of the clean vehicles program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-partisan science advocacy group, the government is legally required to give automakers at least 18 month’s notice before any rule changes go into effect.

Next, Romney could take on Obama’s new vehicle standards for model years 2017 and beyond, which the president announced late last month. Those rules include the EPA requirement that automakers curb their average greenhouse gas emissions by an additional one-third by 2025, or the equivalent of 54.5 miles per gallon. They also include an NHTSA requirement that new cars and trucks get an average fuel efficiency of 41 miles per gallon by 2021.

At least one group, the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA), supports delaying action on the vehicle standards for 2017 and beyond. The trade group, which represents nearly 16,000 new car and truck dealers worldwide, says that while it supports raising fuel economy standards, Obama’s rules will likely shut millions of Americans out of the new car market by raising the average sticker price of vehicles—roughly $3,000 by 2025, according to federal estimates.

If the agencies decide to alter the rules, however, they would probably face lawsuits by myriad parties, including environmental, clean-air and consumer groups, Friedman said.

The agencies “can set the standards how they want, and then they’d get sued, because they’d be violating the law,” he said.

According to the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, the Bush administration’s sweeping energy law, the NHTSA is required to achieve “the maximum feasible average fuel economy level” in new vehicles. The act also requires automakers to get at least an average of 35 miles per gallon by model year 2020.

Lowering emissions targets also could violate the federal Clean Air Act and its later amendments. The law requires the EPA to regulate new vehicle emissions that contribute to air pollution and could “endanger public health or welfare.” A 2007 Supreme Court case, State of Massachusetts v. EPA, affirmed that the agency has to set standards for greenhouse gas emissions as well.

Because of that ruling, the EPA must regulate vehicle greenhouse gases “irrespective of who is in the White House,” Ted Hesser, a clean energy analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance in New York, told InsideClimate News.

“The only way for Romney to stop [the rules] is to effectively disband the EPA … but it’s not likely that that’s going to happen,” he said.

Congress could help Romney try to scrap the standards.

Legislators, for instance, could strip the 2007 energy law of its “maximum feasible” language or set a cap on fuel efficiency targets, rendering the program less effective. They could use annual budget bills to block the NHTSA from spending taxpayer dollars to enforce CAFE law or to penalize automakers that don’t comply. Policymakers used a similar strategy in the 1990s to keep fuel efficiency targets from ratcheting up, preventing the DOT from spending funds to develop stronger standards.

A Snag in the Plan—California

If Romney did pare down the federal fuel economy rules, automakers wouldn’t be completely off the hook. California could still set its own standards for vehicle greenhouse gas emissions, and a dozen states could follow its lead.

California has that power in part because of its efforts back in the late 1950s to regulate new vehicle emissions, long before the federal government took action. When the Air Quality Act of 1967 was passed, it allowed California to keep doing that so long as the state’s standards were as stringent as federal standards and the EPA granted it a waiver.

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) already has waivers for model years 2016 and earlier, and it recently asked the EPA for waivers for later years. The EPA is expected to grant those waivers by January.

A key reason the automakers endorsed the 2017 to 2025 standards was that California and the Obama administration agreed to the same targets, thus creating one federal rule instead of a patchwork of regulations.

If a Romney administration scaled back the new vehicle standards, California could use the waivers to keep its own stringent rules in place. So could the other 12 states that have adopted California’s clean car standards for light-duty vehicles: Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. Gov. Jan Brewer’s administration withdrew Arizona from the program earlier this year.

Daniel Sperling said he didn’t think the EPA could rescind those waivers. Sperling is a member of CARB and the founding director of the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis.

But if they tried, “California and the other…states would undoubtedly sue and use their political clout.”

But Is It Worth It?

Given that Romney could roll back the federal fuel economy rules, a second question arises: Would he actually do it?

The answer is probably no, said Anwyl, the vice chairman at, in part because the auto industry isn’t demanding such changes.

Carmakers are comfortable with the vehicle standards for a couple of reasons, Anwyl said.

In the short term, they’ll probably be able to meet the 2012 to 2016 targets without much difficulty, because they’re already developing more fuel-efficient models and because consumers are demanding alternatives to gas guzzlers. New passenger cars got an average of 23.8 miles per gallon in the first six months of this year, the highest-ever fuel efficiency levels for such vehicles.

Plus, the 2022 to 2025 rules aren’t final yet. Starting in late 2017, the federal agencies will review and perhaps tweak them to better reflect the economic conditions, consumer demand and price of gas and alternatives, like electric cars.

“It’s not likely that these standards will move into the next decade without some additional scrutiny,” Anwyl said.

Ann Mesnikoff, director of the Sierra Club’s Green Transportation program, said that preemptively weakening CAFE rules would waste the taxpayer dollars spent to study and develop the rules.

The EPA and NHTSA “have made a tremendous amount of work and investment to come up with strong and well-documented rules for 2017 to 2025,” she said. “To undo that, one has to question whether that’s a wise use of government resources.”