Author:Frankel, Emil H.
Position:Response to article by Vicki Arroyo and others in this issue, p. 919

Introduction 1115 I. Climate Change, Transportation, and Fuel Efficiency 1116 II. Fuel Efficiency Standards and Pricing 1119 III. Climate Change and Transportation Planning 1124 IV. Transportation and Resiliency 1127 Conclusion 1129 INTRODUCTION

This is a response to the Article by Vicki Arroyo, the founder and Executive Director of the Georgetown Climate Center, and her colleagues on new strategies by federal, state, and local governments to achieve a low-carbon and resilient transportation system (the "Article"). Both the Article and this response recognize that the most significant progress made in reducing the transportation sector's oil dependence and in mitigating greenhouse gas ("GHG") emissions has resulted from the adoption and implementation by the federal government, beginning in the 1970s, of fuel efficiency standards under the Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency ("CAFE)" program. While federal fuel efficiency standards remained largely unchanged through the 1980s and 1990s, activity resumed during the administration of George W. Bush, and fuel efficiency standards were greatly strengthened and expanded under President Barack Obama. With the change of administrations, however, future progress in improving fuel efficiency and in reducing GHG emissions under this program is now uncertain.

Despite the demonstrated effectiveness of fuel efficiency standards, this response emphasizes that pricing also plays an important role in the effort to mitigate GHG emissions and to reduce oil dependence in the transportation sector. Higher fuel prices, particularly, when combined with more rigorous fuel efficiency standards, are the most effective tool to reduce the use of liquid petroleum in transportation and to incentivize technological innovations to improve fuel efficiency. Higher prices reinforce public support for, and acceptance of, increased regulatory requirements for fuel efficiency. Unlike the Article, this response views pricing as a more significant way to achieve these public purposes than the dissemination of zero-emission vehicles.

Further, this response, like the Article, regards the incorporation of GHG emission goals in state and metropolitan transportation planning processes as an important element of a program to reduce those impacts, but calls for specific federal incentives and requirements to achieve these changes. Finally, both the Article and this response acknowledge the growing importance of introducing resilience as an element of transportation planning and investment in light of the impacts of climate change on these facilities that are already occurring and that are likely to grow in the next few years.


    As the Article notes, addressing GHG emissions from the transportation sector is critically important to achieving overall national emission reduction goals now contained in the Paris Agreement. (1) Emissions from the transportation sector are now the largest of any sector of the American economy. (2) However, reducing GHG emissions in transportation has been, and will continue to be, particularly difficult and complicated.

    Over the last century, particularly since the end of the Second World War, America has become a society almost totally dependent on the automobile and on the liquid petroleum that enables our auto-mobility.(3) Oil dependency carries with it serious risks for economic stability, national security, and environmental sustainability. (4)

    For all intents and purposes, transportation is the only major sector of the American economy that remains almost totally dependent on oil. (5) Approximately two-thirds of the liquid petroleum used annually in the United States is used in transportation. (6) The result is that, without oil, America's transportation system and its economy would come to a halt.

    Nonetheless, the country has made progress in reducing GHG emissions from, and in achieving a lower-carbon regime in, the transportation sector. In pursuit of that goal, the most important step taken by the federal government has been the adoption and implementation of fuel efficiency standards under the CAFE program, originally enacted in the 1970s under the pressure of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries' ("OPEC") oil embargoes. (7)

    In its first years, significant savings were achieved from the light-duty vehicle fleet--passenger cars--largely by reducing the weight of automobiles. (8) But then the CAFE program, under pressure from American automobile companies and automobile workers--and their bipartisan representatives in Congress--went into an almost three-decade period of stagnation. (9)

    George W. Bush's second administration renewed implementation of the CAFE program, reforming and gradually increasing standards for fuel efficiency regulations, and initiating the process to extend fuel efficiency standards to both light- and heavy-duty trucks. (10) During the same period, the 2007 decision of the United States Supreme Court in Massachusetts v. EPA made the provisions of the Clean Air Act applicable to GHG emissions from automobiles. (11) Since Massachusetts, fuel efficiency and GHG emission standards have been jointly regulated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ("NHTSA"), an agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation ("US DOT"), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ("EPA"). (12)

    The Bush administration's initial steps to establish fuel economy standards and the Obama administration's subsequent higher fuel efficiency standards have been the most significant federal government actions to reduce America's GHG emissions and mitigate the nation's impact on global warming and climate change. Under President Obama, CAFE will require that, by 2025, average miles per gallon for light-duty vehicles exceed fifty-four miles, and heavy-duty trucks will, for the first time, face enforceable fuel efficiency standards. (13)

    There is little question that the increasing CAFE standards promulgated for light-duty vehicles under President Bush and for light trucks, SUVs, and heavy-duty trucks under President Obama, have stimulated innovation and will continue to do so. Unlike the early years of CAFE, when automobile manufacturers sought to meet fuel efficiency standards primarily by reducing the weight of light-duty vehicles--with sometimes unfortunate safety consequences--the re-invigorated fuel efficiency regime has stimulated automobile manufacturers to use innovations already in vehicles, like fuel injection systems, to improve fuel efficiency. (14) Now, in order to achieve fuel efficiency more broadly in their entire vehicle fleet, manufacturers are using new designs and materials for automobiles and implementing increased hybridization and technological innovations to the power train. (15)

    In many cases, these technologies were developed many years ago by automobile manufacturers and even installed in cars, but had been applied to power, not to fuel efficiency. (16) Thus, there is little reason to doubt that the industry can meet the fuel efficiency and GHG emission standards promulgated by the Obama administration, although the future of those regulations is now uncertain, in light of the change of administrations.


    The Article rightfully argues that fuel efficiency standards alone cannot achieve the reductions in GHG emissions that scientists indicate are needed to avoid the most catastrophic effects of global warming and satisfy American commitments under the Paris Agreement. (17) However, the Article overestimates the extent that incentives for the broad introduction of zero-emission vehicles ("ZEVs"), such as all electric or fuel cell vehicles, can achieve these goals. Instead, increases in prices through higher fuel taxes, either independently or together with the imposition of mileage-based user fees, would be stronger and more effective complements to fuel efficiency standards in reducing the use of carbon in the transportation sector and in meeting the nation's climate change goals.

    The broad acceptance of ZEVs will require substantial changes in market behavior and an increase in consumer demand. While the experience in California with ZEVs is promising and instructive, increased national acceptance of these vehicles will almost certainly require dramatic improvements in batteries in order to ease the--admittedly, sometimes irrational--concern of drivers about battery range...

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