Deal to Double Fuel Economy Standards a Bright Spot for Obama

Plan calls for car makers to hit 54.5 mpg on average by 2025.

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For weeks, the American public has focused on President Obama's inability to forge compromise with Congress. So, as the debt ceiling debate drags out on the Hill, the president can only hope that people pay as much attention to the compromise he actually did reach over fuel economy standards this week. [See where the auto industry spends its money in Congress.]

Obama's deal with car manufacturers, which he unveiled Friday at a conference of automakers in Washington, is the most ambitious effort on fuel economy in America yet. It mandates increases in manufacturers' average fuel economy to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. That's more than double the current average of 27 miles per gallon. The plan would do it gradually by raising efficiency on most vehicles by 5 percent annually. There's an exception for light trucks, which will require a 3.5 percent annual increase through 2021. "This agreement on fuel standards represents the single most important step we've ever taken as a nation to reduce our dependence on foreign oil," said Obama in his speech to the automakers.

To Obama's credit, the new standards appear to be a genuine deal between manufacturers, who have fought heartily against significant increases to fuel economy standards in the past, and environmentalists and consumer advocates, who had wanted the 2025 standards to range between 56 and 62 miles per gallon, according to AutoWeek.

But the deal, it seems, wouldn't have been possible years ago, before the government and the auto industry began their controversial, and almost incestuous, relationship following the industry bailouts. "It is an extraordinary shift in the relationship between the companies and Washington," writes the New York Times. "But a lot has happened in the last four years, notably the $80 billion federal bailout of General Motors, Chrysler and scores of their suppliers, which removed any itch for a politically charged battle from the carmakers." [See a roundup of political cartoons on gas prices.]

Obama also had to make a major concession, which groups on the left, like the Center for American Progress, aren't too happy about. Namely, he's allowing for a review process midway to 2025 that could give manufacturers an out if technology isn't moving quickly enough or if the American public doesn't like where the companies are headed. According to CAP's Daniel Weiss, the "review is a self-destruct button that could enable auto companies to escape the most efficient standards." He also argues that the loophole could hurt American companies most. "Once again, the Detroit Three may eat their foreign competitors' dust because the proposed review gives them an excuse to avoid technological advancements," Weiss wrote in a statement to the press. "But since our competitors will likely demonstrate that 54.5 miles per gallon cars are technically and economically achievable, the loophole could cost us the very autoworker jobs the companies claim it was designed to protect."

Still, for Obama and his party, the deal is a bright spot in an otherwise strenuous week, and proof that compromises in Washington aren't just a thing of the past.

  • See a round up of political cartoons on gas prices.
  • See where the auto industry spends its money in Congress.
  • See a list of the 10 best cities with public transportation.