Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Supreme Court Ducks out of the CAFE and Hails a Cab

One of the most hotly debated items in air quality rule making is the setting of CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards by the Federal Government.  Originally designed to reduce fuel consumption and limit air pollution, the standards have been in place since 1975.

The current standard for cars is 27.5 miles per gallon (mpg).  While some may think this is an unfair standard, I have to point out that this is the worst rate in the developed world.  In Europe, the standards are set at 45 mpg.  It is our nation's goal to reach into the 30's in the coming decade.

(Photo by Pikadilly:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/pikadilly/889578202/)
In the midst of this national effort, many states have been frustrated by the slow pace of change on CAFE standards and have tried to enact modifications.  For example, the State of California tried to develop new standards to deal with serious air pollution problems.  This effort was tied up in court of some time until the US Government agreed to modify CAFE standards to make improvements in automobile and truck mpg rates.

Not only were the states involved in pursuing improved vehicle efficiencies, but cities also tried to set guidelines for the types of vehicles that could be on their streets.  The City of New York tried to require that all taxis in the city be hybrid vehicles.  The Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade sued the city and argued that transforming the fleet would be a hardship on their industry and that it was not within the jurisdiction of the city to set such requirements.  Currently approximately 1/3 of the cabs are hybrid. 

Details of this case and outcome are posted in this New York Times story.  The bottom line is that the US Supreme Court decided not to hear the case thereby giving a victory to the Taxicab Board of Trade.  The federal government has always maintained that they are the ONLY organization that can set fuel standards for vehicles and the Supreme Court sided with this viewpoint.  Certainly, there are reasons why Federal standards might be a good idea.  National uniform standards make manufacturing easier.

However, this policy seems to hinder innovation.  Many urban areas have sought better mpg results from auto manufacturers in order to make their cities cleaner.  Several cities have unique geographies that concentrate air pollution to dangerous levels.  However, as per federal guidelines, they cannot provide local mpg rules to protect their citizens.  Thus, their pollution management options are quite limited.  In addition, states that seek to improve air quality cannot change mpg rules.  This is quite different from many environmental rules that state that the federal government rates are the minimum and that states and local governments can develop regulations that are tougher than federal guidelines.

State and local governments are increasingly frustrated by the failure of the federal government to effectively have conversations on these important policies that have real-world local impacts.  In addition, with our modern technology and just in time manufacturing processes, it is not impossible to have regional variations in vehicle requirements.  Unfortunately, our one-size fits all approach to CAFE standards hinders local and state governments from developing policies that can improve the lives of their citizens.

1 comment:

Sharon Hoff said...

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