"We will be very mindful -- and I underline 'mindful' -- of the consumer throughout this process," Oge, director of the EPA's Office of Transportation and Air Quality, said. "Unless people buy these new clean cars and trucks, and buy them in large numbers, everyone loses."
But the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an industry lobbying group, has warned that the 62-mpg CAFE standard could cut car sales by 25 percent, costing the industry 220,000 jobs.
Oge was scheduled to be in Detroit again last week meeting with automakers on the issue. Her point -- that overly expensive clean technology will do little good -- is also taken up by industry allies. Analyst Sean McAlinden estimates that a 62 mpg bogey will require extensive use of pricey technology such as hybrids.
"That would require a market that's 64 percent plug-in hybrids -- that's the only way we can get it to 62 mpg," said McAlinden, chief economist and executive vice president of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.
New-vehicle prices would rise by an average of $9,970, McAlinden said. Other estimates are lower; the alliance cites a possible price increase of "as much as $6,400." Either way, industry groups say they fear that sticker-shocked consumers would hold on to their old cars.
"That would sort of defeat the purpose of CAFE as well as mandated safety technology, which rely on new-vehicle sales," McAlinden said.
Despite the tug of war, some increase in fuel economy requirements is a certainty.
In September, federal rule makers will propose standards for the 2017-25 model years, followed by a public comment period. The debate over clean technology and its costs will continue until July 2012, when new standards are scheduled to be adopted.
In a recent letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the alliance said "automakers support ... maximum feasible fuel economy standards without negative impacts on affordability, jobs, safety or consumer choice."
The debate is about how aggressive the rules should be. The 62-mpg rule requires a 6 percent annual improvement. An alternate proposal, requiring a 3 percent annual increase, would mandate a CAFE of 47 mpg for 2025. A compromise between the two positions is also possible.
Backers of stronger rules dispute industry cost estimates for hitting 62 mpg. The federal notice of intent to create rules, done jointly by the EPA and NHTSA, estimates price increases ranging from $2,800 to $3,500 per vehicle.
The EPA is taking pains to consult with automakers and is doing extensive research to analyze costs, Oge said in an interview.
The EPA/NHTSA statement adds that with a 62-mpg CAFE, 2025-model vehicles would save $5,700 to $7,400 in lifetime fuel costs. David Friedman, deputy director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' clean vehicle program, said monthly fuel savings could outweigh increased monthly car payments for buyers.
"If you're a typical consumer and you take a five- to seven-year loan, when you drive off the lot, you're saving money," he said.