If California highways and parking lots of 2025 look considerably different from today’s, it will probably be because they’ll contain almost 1.5 million more hybrid cars and trucks, hydrogen-driven vehicles, and plug-in hybrids that run mostly on electricity except on long trips.
That’s the vision behind the latest set of proposed rules rolled out by the California Air Resources Board even as the Republican chairman of the main investigative committee in the House of Representatives seeks to drag it into hearings about whether it is exceeding its mission.
There is no doubt about the mission of the ARB: Clean up California air at least enough to meet the not-so-extreme standards of the federal Clean Air Act. That law specifically gives the state board authority to do what’s necessary to reach its goals in some of America’s smoggiest areas, even if that means taking tougher actions than those of national agencies including Congress itself.
The latest CARB initiative is called the Low Carbon Fuel Standard. It seeks to change cars by changing their fuels. It would demand cutting 10 percent of the carbon from current automotive gasoline and diesel by 2020, thus reducing greenhouse gases and encouraging much more development of alternative fuels from waste-based biofuel to electricity and hydrogen.
In the process, it would drive average gas mileage up from today’s 27.3 miles per gallon to about 55 by 2025. That may upset some carmakers, oil companies and Republican Congressman Darrell Issa of north San Diego County, who heads the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and is getting a new round of questions ready for CARB chief Mary Nichols. It upsets Issa that CARB may have had great influence on federal gas mileage standards, which largely parallel the new California ones and are forecast to drive up the cost of new cars by about $1,900 when they’re fully in effect.
He ignores the fact that those same forecasts say the standards will save car buyers an average of $6,000 each in fuel costs over the lifetime of the new cars.
Meanwhile, car makers led by Ford are saying they won’t be able to sell all those fuel-efficient cars even if they can somehow build them. The new rule would essentially mandate that about one-third of new cars 13 years from now be electric- or hydrogen-powered, with plug-in hybrids similar to today’s Chevrolet Volt taking a much larger market share than today.
Preposterous? That’s what Ford and other companies said when CARB almost 15 years ago adopted a “zero-emission” standard for about one-third of California cars to be sold by 2012. Things haven’t turned out precisely that way, but the rule hasn’t been preposterous, either, with the near-zero emission Toyota Prius a tremendous commercial success and scores of other hybrid models from Honda Civics to Lexus and Ford sport utilities. Not to mention all the Ford Fusions, Nissan Altimas and others that fall in between.
The same oil companies that say there simply won’t be enough alternate fuels available by 2025 to support the new standards also claimed in the 1990s that they couldn’t formulate the cleaner gasoline commonly used today. They also said they couldn’t clean up diesel, but did it when they had to. Car companies said in the 1970s that having to put catalytic converters on cars and trucks would kill their business. Consistently, the companies that embraced the newly-mandated technologies soonest are the ones that have done best commercially.
So it’s best to take manufacturer complaints with a substantial grain of salt.
In fact, without CARB, there would be no hybrids today. Air in California would be about twice as polluted. Gas mileage would be far lower. Improvements like that make a pretty good track record for any agency, so it’s hard to understand why a politician like Issa would go after CARB unless it’s just to score rhetorical points. Plus, there’s the board’s record of compromise when improvements in technology don’t quite keep pace with the rules. Just such an adjustment to the zero-emission standard is the reason hybrid cars appeared in big numbers before all-electric ones arrived.
Yes, when the air board reduces pollution, it also increases fuel efficiency and cuts America’s oil imports. And when other states and the federal Environmental Protection Agency adopt the California rules as their own, the usual practice, that has so far helped just about everybody except oil sheikhs and the authoritarian government of petro-rich Venezuela.
So when CARB issues a rule like its new Low Carbon Fuel Standard, it’s often best to visualize the resulting new cars rather than focusing on opposition that has usually proven wrong. Yes, the board had serious credibility problems last year and in 2010 with its diesel regulations and the staffer who helped produce them, but on the whole this is one government regulator that has produced innovation and improvement. There’s no reason to believe the new rules will change that 52-year tradition.