New fuel efficiency standards in the US


in Canada, Economics, Law, Politics, The environment

Porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) in a tree, near the Ottawa River

Obama’s decision to extend California-style fuel efficiency standards across the US is a very welcome one, not least because it seems likely that Canada’s government will copy them. The US rules take effect in 2012 and create a federal fuel efficiency standard. The aim is to push the efficiency of the US car and light truck fleet to 35.5 miles per gallon (6.63 L/100km) by 2016: 40% better than now. Such a move is long overdue, given the poor efficiency of the US vehicle fleet, the huge amounts of oil imported by the United States in order to keep them running, climate change concerns, and reasonable doubts about the availability of low-cost hydrocarbons in the near to medium future.

While the new standards are a marked improvement, it is worth thinking about them in context. They will not bring the US up to speed with Australia, China, the European Union, or Japan. Indeed, even in 2020, the planned American standards lag behind where the EU and Japan were in 2002. Given the degree to which North American taxpayers now own the big car companies, it may well have been possible to demand more progressive action from them.

Toughening standards may seem even more prescient if the end of the economic slump brings back high oil prices, as some are predicting. As reported in The Economist, the Saudi oil minister is concerned that a sharp increase in oil prices could slow or stop an economic recovery, while attendees at an OPEC summit apparently expect oil to return to $150-per-barrel territory:

The explanation is simple. Oilmen are worried because they believe that many of the factors behind the record-breaking ascent last year remain in place. Much of the world’s “easy” oil has already been extracted, or is in the hands of nationalist governments that will not allow foreigners to exploit it. That leaves firms to hunt for new reserves in ever more inhospitable and inaccessible places, such as the deep waters off Africa or the frozen oceans of the Arctic. Such fields take a long time and a lot of expensive technology to develop. Worse, new discoveries tend to be smaller than in the past and to run dry faster.

More efficient vehicles make sense as a near-term mechanism for dealing with the linked problems of climate change and energy security, but they are only an incremental step. Rather than being able to rely on increasing the efficiency of an unsustainable practice, we need to alter the basis on which that practice occurs, so as to make it both efficient and sustainable. By all means, we need to increase the efficiency with which vehicles of all kinds transport people and freight, but we must remember that we will only have attained our basic goals when those efficient vehicles operate using zero-carbon, sustainable electricity or sustainably grown, carbon-neutral biofuels as their fuel sources.

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

R.K. May 22, 2009 at 10:36 am

Where did you photograph this porcupine?

Milan May 22, 2009 at 10:58 am

Right about here: beside the bike path, near Mud Lake.

Matt May 22, 2009 at 1:14 pm

Unrelated to climate change I’ve often heard stats that if the US fleet was only X amount more efficient, they wouldn’t have to rely on Middle East oil. I wonder in this 35.5MPG threshold would A) meet this criteria & B) actually result in middle east oil not being purchased.

My feeling, based on nothing concrete, is A) yes B) no.

Milan May 22, 2009 at 1:44 pm

This R-Squared post has some useful stats.

“In the U.S., oil consumption is 27 barrels per person per year… Each year the U.S. produces 11 barrels per person… In order to achieve energy independence, the gap between demand and production must be closed…”

It is also notable that US production is falling. Of course, the US does import from places outside the Middle East (notably Canada). Does anyone have a link to data on where US oil imports come from? Also, what share of those imports are used for private vehicles?

Milan May 22, 2009 at 1:46 pm

According to the EIA, 9,286,000 barrels/day of motor gasoline are used in the United States. Total petroleum consumption is 20,680,000 barrels/day. Transport thus represents about 70% of total US oil usage.

We also need to know the breakdown of fuel use by transportation type: personal vehicles, freight shipping, aircraft, maritime use, etc.

Once you isolated the barrels per day used by American private automobiles, you could compare that with total imports from the Middle East. If the former number is significantly larger than the latter, it would be technically possible to eliminate those imports through more efficient cars.

. May 22, 2009 at 1:56 pm

Basic Facts About Energy and the Middle East

The Donella Meadows Archive
Voice of a Global Citizen

Amount of U.S. oil used to run vehicles: 7.3 mbd or 43 percent. (Doubling our vehicle efficiency would therefore reduce our oil consumption by 3.6 mbd — and we import only 2 mbd from the entire Middle East.)

Emily May 22, 2009 at 2:16 pm

Incredible photo!!

Milan May 22, 2009 at 2:24 pm

To get him properly exposed, I had to fire my 430EX II flash straight at him. As such, he looks a bit unnatural. It would have been better with a big diffuser between the flash and the subject.

That being said, I was out cycling, not in a photo studio or on a nature photography expedition. Given the circumstances, it worked fairly well.

Anon May 22, 2009 at 4:20 pm

Has anyone independently assessed how much it would cost to adopt the tougher EU or Japanese standards instead?

. May 22, 2009 at 4:34 pm

Thursday, May 21, 2009
Thoughts on New Fuel Efficiency Standards

After I wrote The Problem with CAFE a couple of years ago, a lot of people concluded that I am against higher CAFE standards. That’s not exactly the case. In a nutshell, my problem with CAFE is that I feel like it addresses the problem from the wrong side of the equation. In light of the new announcements on stricter CAFE standards, this might be a good time to review the issue.

The problem I have with it is that it mandates that automakers build vehicles that people are not demanding. There are very fuel efficient cars available right now. In fact, that’s about all you see in Europe, and you can certainly get them in the U.S. Why is the demand high in Europe? High fuel prices. People demand fuel efficient cars when fuel prices are high, as we saw last summer when SUV sales plummeted and hybrids were flying off of the car lots. Europe doesn’t have to mandate that they are built; the demand is there.

tristan May 22, 2009 at 6:36 pm

I think it’s at least interesting that even absurd cars like corvette, and even Calloway’s 600hp version of the corvette, manage about 29mpg on the highway.

Matt May 22, 2009 at 7:03 pm

I wonder if we’ll ever see aluminum frames/unibodies take off in the mainstream. While some manufacturers (Jaguar) do use aluminum, I don’t think it’s very common due to expense. It would also be interesting to see CFRP used more too, but of course that’s even more expensive. Also, crash standards are probably a lot tougher to meet without steel.

Adding “lightness” is a good way to eek out a few more MPG.

Sarah May 22, 2009 at 11:25 pm

Love the picture. I had no idea that porcupines climbed trees.

tristan May 23, 2009 at 1:34 am

The new Jaguars are not light. Cars in the early 80s were light. 3rd generation F-body’s were originally 2200lbs.

Lightness is easy – sacrifice safety. But actually, aerodynamics are more important. Weird then, that a lot of low hanging aerodynamic fruit which was picked in the 80s is now abandoned in the name of marketing. Marketing killed the cat when it comes to cars.

Matt May 23, 2009 at 2:20 am

The new Jaguars are not light.

I’ve looked this up and am partially prepared to eat some crow. Most Jaguars are still steel, and indeed most weigh around 2 tons… pretty heavy. However in 2004 they used the XJ to pioneer aluminum construction and it is indeed light; very light considering its size class.

As for aerodynamics vs lightness, I wouldn’t argue one is more important than the other. Aerodynamics would play a big role on the highway when your speed is constant and wind resistance high. But in the city, you don’t want to be accelerating a large mass only to scrub all that energy off in the brakes a few seconds later at the next traffic light. Indeed though, the wrap around headlights and curvy lines pioneered by the Audi 5000 and Ford Taurus did a lot to help fuel economy as did electronic fuel injection that was just being introduced at the same time.

I think the 35.5 MPG cars that have been mandated will likely:
A) Be diesel and/or
B) Hybrids and/or
C) Small with
D) electric accessories (A/C, power steering)
and if gasoline powered will also have:
E) Direct injection
F) Variable valve timing
G) Electronic throttle

Although a lot of cars have some of these technologies already, the cheap ones don’t. There are quite a few models already getting the 35.5MPG.

Tristan May 23, 2009 at 12:43 pm

If you want aerodynamics, we aren’t much further ahead from where we were in the 80s. Sub .30 CD’s are still rare.

If you want 35mpg, or 40mpg, take a 1982F body and put the new 2.2 ecotech in it. They actually came with similarly sized 4 cylinders in the base model originally, although at that time even the big V8’s only made the 150hp that the 4 cylinders now have.

Also, most jaguars are aluminum, if you mean over the range, not numbers of cars sold. The XJ and XK are aluminum. The XF isn’t because it would have delayed its release too badly.

Tristan May 23, 2009 at 1:12 pm

People might find it strange that I often reference the 3rd generation F body, effectively a road burning muscle car, as an epidomy of fuel economy. This is not actually just boyish testosterone. In fact, the redesign of the F body in 1982 lightened the cars by more than 1000lbs, and greatly improved the aerodynamics. They were the first vehicles by GM to be developed using a wind tunnel with fuel economy in mind – and the main reason for lightness was to be able to offer the base model with a 4 cylinder. Emissions regulations in the 70s greatly reduced power output, and the only way to make cars sporty again was to increase lightness. We need to understand the massive heft of cars today as related to the improved engine designs which allow huge power while producing very low levels of (other than C02) pollutants. Ironically, you could say that cleaner engines (concerning pollutants other than Co2) have had as a direct result, much dirtier engines (concerning Co2).

In fact, the 3rd generation F body represented the kind of leap forward in economy and pollution minded car building which we simply haven’t seen since the 80s. The current fuel economy standards increase are the first regulations since the 70s which have a chance at spurring the kind of radical change it embodies. This kind of change always needs to be driven by regulation – and regulations that produce great changes always result in worse cars at first (look at american cars in the 70s – total disasters, trying to build cars in the old way, but living up to modern standards). What we need is a new 3rd generation F body – not just more cars of the old type with smaller gutless engines, but cars redesigned from the ground up to be light and aerodynamic.

. May 27, 2009 at 11:27 am

Obama’s new CAFE standards keep the pressure on Congress to act

It’s an annual rite as familiar as April showers; Americans again jumped in their cars in droves this past weekend to celebrate the unofficial start of summer. It was fitting that last week President Obama took a major step, announcing regulations that will increase fuel efficiency within a few years. With this move, Obama ensured that the Memorial Day weekends of the future will not leave as big a carbon footprint.

These standards will save billions of barrels of oil, stop millions of tons of carbon emissions, and may help pull Detroit out of its funk as it forces new rounds of innovation. While the Markey-Waxman bill slowly works its way through the labyrinth in Congress, Obama has taken the single most important step to combat climate change in U.S. history.

. June 5, 2009 at 11:27 am

Oil prices head back towards $70

Oil prices are heading towards $70 a barrel, a new seven-month high, amid fresh economic hopes and rising stock market prices.

A weak dollar has also made more oil attractive to investors.

US light sweet crude rose 40 cents to $69.21, on Friday while London Brent added 30 cents to $69.01.

. January 2, 2012 at 2:30 pm

Monday, January 02, 2012
Lighting in the Wild

. January 23, 2012 at 5:01 pm

A high-stakes legal battle is underway in California over whether the state’s clean air agency can enforce a first-ever rule to slash carbon emissions in transportation fuels. The fight is being closely watched because the rule could choke global market demand for Alberta’s carbon-intensive oil sands at a very precarious time for the industry.

On Wednesday, the Obama administration rejected a permit for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which could have increased imports of the fuel into the U.S. by up to 830,000 barrels a day. It was a major setback for the oil industry and its allies and an unexpected victory for environmentalists and their allies. The two sides are now facing each other down in this court case.

California’s low-carbon fuel standard is the world’s first attempt to require oil suppliers to slash the carbon footprint of their motor fuels, measured not just by emissions from tailpipes but across their full lifecycle, from extraction to combustion. Eleven Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, and the European Union, are closely tracking California’s case because they are working to adopt similar rules.

The state’s influential Air Resources Board, or CARB, adopted the Low Carbon Fuel Standard in 2009 as part of its landmark global warming law, A.B. 32. The agency was supposed to begin enforcing the rule on Jan. 1, 2012. But oil companies, which say it unfairly penalizes high-carbon fuels like oil sands crude, have fought furiously to kill the standard. And on Dec. 29, a federal judge in Fresno, Calif., handed them a victory by ruling that CARB can’t enforce the measure until an outstanding lawsuit by the oil industry and ethanol advocates is resolved in 2013.

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