White House Pushes For Higher Fuel Efficiency

The Obama administration and auto industry executives are starting talks over new fuel economy standards for cars and trucks, which are to be announced in September. Sources say the administration is pushing for the average fuel economy for each carmaker's fleet to rise to 56 mpg by 2025. The companies want something closer to 47 mpg. The heavyweight in these negotiations could turn out to be California, which plans to set its own standard if the federal government doesn't go high enough.

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Negotiations are heating up between the White House and automakers. At issue are new fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks. The talks are supposed to be secret but some numbers are already leaking out.

And as NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports, President Obama may have a hard time repeating his earlier success raising mileage rules.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: One of President Obama's biggest environmental achievements was getting the auto industry to agree to boost the average fuel economy to 35 miles per gallon by 2016. Team Obama is hoping to stage an encore for the next generation of fuel economy standards. It just started meeting individually with auto companies.

Michigan Democratic Senator Carl Levin bristled when he heard the White House had put forward an opening bid of 56 miles per gallon by 2025.

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan): It was a scenario that was placed on the table which, frankly, shocked me.

SHOGREN: Neither the White House nor car companies would confirm the 56 miles per gallon number. But a congressional staffer briefed on the meeting says the White House asked companies to work up an analysis of a 56 mile per gallon standard.

Gina McCarthy heads the air pollution programs for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Ms. GINA MCCARTHY (Assistant Administrator, Office of Air and Radiation, EPA): We're not wedded to a particular number. We're just looking to see right now what type of technology improvements the car companies think they can make and how we would interpret that in our standards.

SHOGREN: Still, some industry representatives are nervous. Gloria Bergquist is the vice president of the Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers.

Ms. GLORIA BERGQUIST (Vice President, Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers): All 12 of my members are equally troubled by the reported numbers that have been coming out, largely because they are essentially an electric vehicle mandate.

SHOGREN: Bergquist says that would mean Americans would have to switch to hybrids and electric vehicles and, so far, the country's favorite pickup still outsells all hybrids put together.

Some car companies have suggested a fuel efficiency target in the 40s. But such a low numbers could backfire by chasing California away. The state is working on its own standard for reducing greenhouse gases from cars. Automakers want only one national standard. A key to the president's earlier fuel economy victory was getting California to agree to accept the federal standard as meeting its own requirement.

Mary Nichols chairs California's Air Resources Board. She doesn't think 56 miles per gallon is a real number, but she likes it.

Ms. MARY NICHOLS (Chair, Air Resources Board, California): I can certainly say that it's in the right direction. It's definitely in the ballpark of discussion.

SHOGREN: Nichols says her state is obligated by law to slash greenhouse gases from vehicles. She expects by 2030, all new cars sold in California will be advanced vehicles of some kind, and that requires a rapid technology shift.

Ms. NICHOLS: We're there at the table as a full partner because we have our own legal authority that we're using here.

SHOGREN: Lawmakers from Michigan aren't thrilled by California's influence. But environmental groups are happy; they argue that even 60 miles per gallon would be doable. They say Americans would more than make up for increased sticker prices on cars with all the money they would save on gasoline.

One thing is clear, to stand any chance of meeting the president's deadline of September 30th, negotiators better not take much summer vacation.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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