There is a piece in Friday's Detroit News about efforts to derail the soon-to-be-proposed Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. The article covers efforts in the House of Representatives that would bar U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the California Environmental Protection Agency's Air Resources Board (CARB) from setting fuel-economy standards (this was an area of questioning at the Congressional hearing last Wednesday held by the House Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs, Stimulus Oversight and Government Spending at which I testified).
This might seem like political posturing -- and I am sure there is plenty of that at play -- but there is more happening here than posturing.
A while back, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case brought by the State of Massachusetts against the EPA, agreed that carbon dioxide is a pollutant and should be regulated by the EPA. If you have ever looked at the process for measuring CAFE fuel economy, you will know that mileage is actually measured by the amount of CO2 emitted. So the Supreme Court decision had the effect of putting the EPA in the business of regulating vehicle mileage.
The trouble is that Congress gave this responsibility to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Adding to this, Congress specifically required NHTSA to take into account things like consumer choice, technical feasibility, etc. And NHTSA was limited in setting fuel economy standards; standards that have been the same across all 50 states. Further, they can only be for a period five years out.
With emissions standards, the EPA has no such constraints -- and in fact has given states individual waivers to set even higher standards, most notably, the state of California. So we have this mess where EPA can set de facto standards, but only NHTSA has the specific authority to set official standards.
I would imagine this sorry state of affairs is one reason the President ordered agencies to “harmonize” the standard setting process. The problem is that the statutory authority given to each agency is fundamentally different. Any attempts at harmonization risk running afoul of an agency's mandate.
The only way to truly harmonize this process is through new legislation that clarifies the role of each agency. Whether the efforts described by the Detroit News will lead to this end I am not sure. Let's hope so.
Jeremy Anwyl: Vice Chairman of Edmunds.com. Follow @JeremyAnwyl on Twitter.