It’s No Joke: Fighting Climate Change Can Save Money and Reduce Oil Dependency

The federal government took the opportunity on April Fool’s Day to show the world the United States is not joking about its commitment to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The U.S. EPA and U.S. DOT have jointly produced a standard that will reduce CO2 emissions by 1 billion metric tons over the lifetime of vehicles covered and on average save consumers around $3,000 in fuel costs over the life of each vehicle purchased in 2016. The new rule requires the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) for new passenger cars and light-duty trucks to be 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. It will also limit carbon dioxide emitted from those vehicles to 250 grams per mile on average. The vehicle emissions rule shows how one policy can achieve multiple goals – reduce our dependence on foreign oil and reduce our nation’s GHG emissions.

The implementation of this regulation is a nod to complementary policies that combat climate change. As an organization that has long pushed for a comprehensive market-based mechanism, we are acutely aware of the importance of pricing carbon. However, putting a modest price on carbon, by itself, would not significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from this sector. For example, EPA’s analysis of the House-passed climate and energy bill found that the bill would cause the price of a gallon of gasoline to only rise by $0.13 in 2015, $0.25 in 2030, and $0.69 in 2050. The rule finalized Thursday addresses this problem directly by setting an increasingly more stringent standard for reducing GHG emissions but allowing vehicle manufacturers the flexibility to find the most cost-effective technologies to achieve those standards.

In evaluating regulations like these, one important factor to consider is coverage. The new vehicle rule covers over 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector. Other sources of emissions in transportation such as aviation, ships, and heavy-duty trucks will require additional actions (see our paper on aviation and marine transportation). EPA has announced its intent to propose GHG standards for heavy duty trucks in June of this year.

Another important factor to consider when evaluating regulations is cost. In order to meet the new standards, vehicle manufacturers will have to make fuel efficiency (as opposed to increased engine horsepower) one of their primary areas of focus for research and development. In doing so, future vehicles will cost more than they would without this rule. However, fuel savings over time will more than make up for that additional upfront cost.

The program is estimated to conserve 1.8 billion barrels of oil over the lifetime of vehicles covered under the rule. Reducing our overall oil consumption can reduce our reliance on foreign oil, which can translate into cost savings. A study by the U.S. EPA and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory estimated that a reduction of U.S. imported oil results in a total energy security benefit of $12.38 per barrel of oil, in part by reducing defense spending. Co-benefits like these are an important part of determining the worthiness of a policy. In the case of the new vehicle rule, the U.S. has taken a big step towards reducing its oil dependency and increasing its energy security.

Nick Nigro is a Solutions Fellow