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NEAL CONAN, host:

Today, President Obama announced a plan to limit carbon emissions and set national mileage standards on American cars. By 2016, new vehicles will be required to average 35.5 miles a gallon. The purpose is to combat climate change and reduce reliance on imported oil. But the president acknowledged that it will come at a price.

(Soundbite of archived speech)

President BARACK OBAMA: Yes, it costs money to develop these vehicles. But even as the price to build these cars and trucks goes up, the cost of driving these vehicles will go down as drivers save money at the pump. And this is a point I want to emphasize: If you buy a car, your investment in a more fuel-efficient vehicle as a result of this standard will pay off in just three years.

CONAN: When you first buy a car in 2016, it'll cost an estimated $1,300 extra. So we'd like to hear from you. Is it worth it? Phone number: 800-989-8255, email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site at npr.org; click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now from the offices of the Los Angeles Times is Dan Neil, an automotive critic at the newspaper, winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

Nice to have you back on the program, Dan.

Mr. DAN NEIL (Columnist, Los Angeles Times): Hi, Neal. Nice to be here.

CONAN: Those fuel-efficient cars will be more expensive, as we mentioned, by about $1,300 - or that's the estimate now, anyway. So we turn the same question to you, Dan. Is this going to be worth it?

Mr. NEIL: It'll be worth it to buy it, but then again, these cars are worth it to buy it now. You know, people have been walking away from increased fuel economy in the showrooms because when the price of oil collapsed last year and the price of gas followed, people suddenly lost interest in fuel economy. And so, the cars that are not selling right now are exactly the most fuel-efficient cars - hybrids and high-mileage vehicles.

The nice thing about this is that it will create a floor under which, you know, the cars will have to get a substantial minimum fuel economy, and won't really matter what the price of gas is as it fluctuates from month to month and year to year.

CONAN: Now these standards - the increase in the standards - had always been opposed by the auto manufactures as saying, look, you're forcing -A, it's very difficult and B, you're forcing these high prices - it would be hard to sell things. The auto manufacturers are now - well, at least the American ones - are partly owned by the American government.

Mr. NEIL: Yeah. It's - no doubt about it. Obama - the Obama administration has a lot more clout with the automakers now that he's a, you know, major shareholder of them. And this was a campaign promise.

It was a move that has been long deferred. And I don't see it so much as, you know, a great victory as something that has been put off and delayed and has finally come to pass because of a confluence of events. Because the administration has so much sway with the automakers, because California was going to go ahead absent any federal action on this, and because I think, clearly, the alliance - the automakers' alliance saw the handwriting on the wall.

CONAN: And you mentioned California, not just an enormous market in and of itself, but what a dozen other states, I think, also followed California's lead, and this will lead to one, national standard, which I guess is one benefit even the most reluctant manufacturer would be happy with.

Mr. NEIL: Oh, right. This has been the argument for the manufacturers, is that allowing California to set its own greenhouse gas emissions for automobiles would create, as they say, a patchwork of regulations.

You know, you have to look somewhat askance at that argument, but to the extent it was ever true, it was kind of made moot when the CAFE, Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, were rewritten to - according to vehicle attributes. In other words, bigger vehicles were allowed to get less mileage, and that was during the Bush administration.

One way to look about - to look at these new rules is that this is CAFE and EPA for cars if Bush v. Gore had gone the other way. This has been about eight years overdue. And so it's a victory for the environment and environmental cause and automobiles, but it will also put to test the argument that this sort of environmental regulation is actually good for the economy. We shall see. The automakers are also standing in line to get about $50 billion in federal loans to modernize their facilities and improve their technologies. So this will be a great test case.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. We're talking with Dan Neil of the Los Angeles Times. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org.

Devin(ph) is with us. Devin calling from Norman, Oklahoma.

DEVIN (Caller): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi, Devin.

DEVIN: Hi. I just want to say that it's a matter to me of thinking ahead, not living in the moment and buying just what you want right then and there. I would absolutely spend more money on the car to better the environment. I really would. I trust Obama in his decisions.

CONAN: Even if it meant, well, you know, $1,300 - that's the estimate now. It could be substantially more than that by the time we get there.

DEVIN: Yes. Thirteen hundred dollars is not that much money. People spend that in half a year, going out to eat.

Mr. NEIL: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: That's one way to look at it. All right, and so it's the carbon emissions part of this that's of most interest to you.

DEVIN: Yes. Yes. I have a child. I have to think of his future.

CONAN: All right. Devin, thanks very much.

DEVIN: No problem. Thanks.

CONAN: This is the first time, Dan, that these two things we've talked about, CAFE standards, just fuel economy standards in the past, this is the first time they have been directly linked, at least by the federal government, to carbon emissions as well.

Mr. NEIL: That's right. And it reflects as a general turning away from the previous administration's view of carbon as something that the market could somehow regulate. You know, in Europe, the EU has imposed -well, they're voluntary standards but they're very, very strict emission standards for cars.

Then they require cars to get something like - or automakers to average 50, 60 miles per gallon. And they're looking at it very squarely as a mileage carbon equation. This is the first time the federal government has done that. The devil is in the details but it is, at least, is a final acknowledgement that transportation, which is the biggest end user of oil in this country, can move forward in this direction.

CONAN: Let's talk with Philip(ph). Philip with us from Tucson.

PHILIP (Caller): Hello. I'm actually a first-time caller but a longtime listener. I'm a very big fan of the show. And my - I guess my question would be is, you know, we're raising the standard on gas mileage - and that's all wonderful, but I think, you know, we live in the 21st century, and with the technology available, if we're going to be talking $1,300 per car, why not just go the extra mile and find other sources -like Chevy has the Volt coming out.

And, you know, we want to have different sources not just to extend our use on oil. And so I don't think I'd pay more for a car that's just going to continue the cycle of us using more oil.

CONAN: But you might buy a car that uses electricity, which is generated by coal?

PHILIP: Well, not necessarily. I mean, I think we should look into, like, wind and solar and other things that maybe aren't produced by the burning of fossil fuels. I would pay more for a car that absolutely had renewable sources of energy.

CONAN: And Philip's idea is a interesting one but pretty far down the technological pipe, don't you think, Dan?

Mr. NEIL: Well, people are running around California like crazy, looking for a renewable energy. There's been a huge investment in wind, in solar, and various kinds of distributed renewable energy infrastructure. That's coming. Certainly, it won't arrive in time to save us from the most calamitous effects of transportation greenhouse gas emissions absent in the action on it.

One interesting thing about these rules is, if you look at them, you read them carefully, basically it says - it commits us to the gradual and inevitable electrification of the automobile. There is no way that these rules are going to be met without far more hybrids, far more - perhaps even plug-in hybrids.

Also, if you look at the rules, they have super credits for electric vehicles, all sorts of incentives that prime the pump for these next-generation propulsion systems. That is a good thing.

My only complaint is that it hasn't come fast enough. But having said that, the conventional internal combustion engine, gasoline-powered car, you know, the handwriting's on the wall - 15, 20 years, tops.

CONAN: Hmm. Let's see if we can go to Bonnie(ph). Bonnie with us from Santa Rosa, California.

BONNIE (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

BONNIE: So I have two comments. One is that I think 39 miles per gallon is not nearly aggressive enough. I just checked my onboard computer on my Prius that I bought last month. I'm averaging 50.7 miles a gallon around town.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

BONNIE: And my second point is, why don't the American car manufacturers just buy the technology that exists for these hybrids that are currently on the road?

CONAN: Dan?

Mr. NEIL: Well, it's not a technology gap between the Japanese car makers and - or the German automakers and the American automakers. We know exactly how to build these cars, for example, the Ford Fusion hybrid, which came out earlier this year.

I got - I think it was 55 miles to the gallon in that car. I mean, I was, you know, I was hyper-miling, but I wasn't, you know, really going to extraordinary lengths. And that is a completely Ford-designed system. And it's - so that's - so it's not a technology gap.

I agree with you that these standards are - could be seen as not aggressive enough, especially considering the time wasted between - in the last decade. I would also note that the EPA is talking about a standard of 250 grams per mile of carbon emission.

Well, that's about 50 miles per gallon. And yet the number that's being batted around is 35.5. So the difference between those two numbers, in terms of carbon emissions, is going to be in the hedges of this regulation. And I'm interested to see how much leeway there is.

There is - for example, flex fuel credits are still built into this. Flex fuel basically means, in this country, ethanol. Ethanol does not have a positive effect on greenhouse gas emissions per mile, and yet that allowance is still in there.

The automakers got a lot of leeway in this deal - and it is a deal. It was clearly a grand bargain between the manufacturers and the government. So we shall see. But is it aggressive enough? It could be argued that it isn't.

CONAN: Bonnie, thanks very much.

BONNIE: Thank you.

CONAN: Email from Erica(ph) in Phoenix, who writes: Which car is going to be $1,300 more for 35-plus MPG rating? I have a Toyota Yaris that gets that much already, so am I expected to trade that in for a domestic car, which, again, costs more than a foreigner and isn't as dependable or as long-lasting?

Mr. NEIL: Yeah. No, it's not going to work like that. That's the problem with talking in these generalities about averages and so forth. Basically, what's going to happen is that the fleet itself, the complexion of the fleet will change slowly.

Cars will not get dramatically smaller. Trucks will not get dramatically smaller. The technology that drives them will change, and you'll see more hybrids, and you'll see different kinds of - you'll see more direct injection and - for example, which is a combustion technology.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. NEIL: The fleet won't change dramatically, but the price of these vehicles will go up as their efficiency goes up. And the main thing, though, in the context of the current environment, is that the carmakers stay around long enough to build these cars. And that's one of the things that's really important about this government loan money that's out there for next-generation technology, you know.

Carmakers are counting on this money to get them to the next generation of automobiles.

CONAN: Dan Neil, thanks, as always, for your time.

Mr. NEIL: Thank you.

CONAN: Dan Neil joined us from the offices of Los Angeles Times, where he's an automotive critic. And you're listening to the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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