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Federal and State Clean Cars Policy Will Promote New Clean Vehicles

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced new proposed greenhouse gas and fuel economy standards for passenger cars and light trucks that will extend through the 2025 model year last fall.  At the same time, California’s Air Resources Board (CARB) announced its new clean cars policy.  CARB’s clean cars policy included harmonized greenhouse gas standards for passenger cars and light duty trucks, issued as part of the negotiated “National Program” for fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards.  But in addition to these standards, California will also continue two programs to encourage automakers to deploy advanced technology (battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell) vehicles.

The federal agencies will be accepting public comments on the proposed rules until Feb. 13, 2012.  Public Citizen supports the federal efforts to promote new clean vehicles, but we are concerned that the proposed rules include too many loopholes for automakers to reduce the amount of efficiency improvement required by the standards.

Another important part of clean cars policy is the interaction between federal and state standards.  A new report by Public Citizen, Driving on California’s Hydrogen Highway:  Innovative Clean Cars Policy Remains Relevant to Federal Transportation Regulation, explains that California’s advanced technology vehicles programs are an important extension of California’s long history of driving clean cars policy.

California seeks to develop a policy to address the historical problem with shifting to advanced technology vehicles.  For decades, policy makers, environmentalists, and the auto industry have tried to find ways to encourage deployment of alternatives to gasoline vehicles.  But automakers hesitate to invest in building vehicles they might not be able to sell, and car buyers are wary of buying vehicles they cannot easily refuel.  This problem has been well illustrated by the decades of failed policies to support ethanol-fueled vehicles.  Starting in the 1970s, the federal government has offered a subsidy for ethanol producers to make ethanol as a vehicle fuel.  Then in 1988, Congress authorized a credit toward fuel economy compliance for manufacturers that built cars that could run on a blend of 85 percent ethanol (E85).  But despite these incentives, E85 is only available at less than 2 percent of gas stations nationwide.

California’s Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) program and Hydrogen Highway initiative seek to correct for this problem by simultaneously stimulating a vehicle market, while producing a refueling infrastructure to support it.  The ZEV program would mandate that a certain percentage of the cars sold in California be certified zero emission vehicles.  For now, the only vehicles that would qualify are battery electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.  The Hydrogen Highway initiative would finance building nine hydrogen refueling stations, with plans to expand this number over the next decade.

These programs affirm California’s role as a leader in clean vehicle policy.  Although the negotiated federal greenhouse gas and fuel economy policy now has wide support, even from the automakers, California played an important role in pushing the federal standards forward.  Now California is participating in an important policy experiment that will give the federal agencies insight into how to think about creating integrated policy around clean vehicles and clean fuels.

READ the report.

Lena Pons is an expert on vehicle efficiency regulations, and a guest blogger for Energy Vox.