The annual SAE Government/Industry Meeting was launched from a new venue in Washington, D.C., this year, at a new time of year, and amidst a realignment of political stars in the nation’s capital. The arrival of the Obama administration and a more heavily Democratic Congress was the backdrop for SAE’s 25th government affairs meeting, the theme of which was "Reinventing the Automobile—The Global Challenge." It was held at the Washington Convention Center Feb. 3-6 in conjunction with the Washington Auto Show.
In the past, the meeting took place in the spring. But the new winter timing coincided, unfortunately, with the new chilly political climate automakers face. About 200 people doffed overcoats and crowded into the opening plenary session, which was held across the way from the auto show’s Green Car pavilion showcasing many of the industry’s marquee offerings. On the stage, an array of Washington hands read the tea leaves on what might happen in a range of green auto policy areas such as greenhouse gas emissions, auto purchase incentives within the economic stimulus plan, imminent corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards, and auto safety standards. The panelists spanned a wide spectrum, from John DeCicco, Senior Fellow, Auto Strategies, Environmental Defense Fund, to Michael Stanton, President and CEO, Association of International Auto Manufacturers.
Emissions and economics dominated the two-hour discussion. Stanton noted a number of like-minded trade groups had held a press conference earlier in the day beseeching the Obama administration to impose a single, national standard for carbon dioxide emissions from auto tailpipes. He alluded to President Obama’s double-barreled announcement on Jan. 26: he asked the EPA to re-evaluate California’s request for a waiver so the Golden State could impose its own CO2 tailpipe standards (the Bush EPA had denied the request) and told the U.S. Department of Transportation to issue new corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards for model year 2011. The Bush DOT had proposed a rule setting annual standards for each of the years 2011-2015. But it never finalized the rule, leaving it to the Obama administration to set the annual CAFE increases necessary to step up to a figure of 35 mpg by 2020—a level Congress mandated in the 2007 energy bill. Obama has instructed the DOT to set a separate standard for 2011 and then address the remaining years.
Stanton noted that the EPA is also considering a national greenhouse gas emissions standard for autos in addition to possibly granting a waiver for California. "Those three parallel regulatory tracts have led to a confusing situation, to say the least," said Stanton. "And let’s not fool ourselves that DOT regulating miles per gallon and the EPA or California regulating carbon dioxide emissions from tailpipes are different; they are not."
The California standard requires most auto manufacturers’ sales mix in the coming years to produce a greenhouse gas reduction that will result in a 44 mpg fleet average in 2020, according to the California Air Resources Board. That is much more stringent than the DOT's 2020 standard of 35 mpg. Thirteen other states have approved legislation to adopt the California greenhouse gas emissions program if the EPA gives California the green light.
DeCicco, the only environmentalist on the panel, did not take a stand on the "one-standard" issue. He said he supports a "complementary system that doesn’t overburden the industry." Nonetheless, he believes that the Clean Air Act, under which the EPA makes regulations, "was written very expansively, in our view," and would allow the agency to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. And, he said, California’s "leadership on this issue should be preserved." He called the CAFE standards imposed by Congress a "clear step forward" but added "there is more to do."
EPA will hold a public hearing on California’s waiver request March 5 in the nation’s capital.
The other major issue at the plenary session was the auto industry’s economic plight. Gregory Cohen, President and CEO, American Highway Users Alliance, noted that the Senate was beginning to vote on its version of the economic stimulus package that day. He and others on the panel voiced support for an amendment from Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) that would allow consumers (individuals making less than $150,000 annually, $250,000 for a family) who purchase new cars, minivans, or light trucks between Nov. 12, 2008, and Dec. 31, 2009, to get a deduction for the sales or excise tax and the interest on their loan. The Mikulski amendment passed with 71 votes.