The four-party talks to devise mpg standards for the 2017-25 model years are trickier than the last go-round. And the departure of White House energy czar Carol Browner -- who masterfully guided the process two years ago -- has changed the dynamics.
At issue are how quickly and how high fuel economy standards will be raised for 2025. The White House wants the industry and three government agencies to agree on proposed standards by September, so it's too early to push the panic button. But with so much at stake for consumers and the industry over the next 14 years, it is time for the White House to take charge of the process.
The four parties come to the process from different directions:
-- By law, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration must consider the national effect on vehicle safety of any new fuel economy standard.
-- The EPA, like NHTSA, is trying to set national targets -- but for tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases, not fuel economy.
-- The California Air Resources Board, like the EPA, has authority over only emissions and is restricted to considering the interests of only one state, not all 50. CARB could again enact its own separate tailpipe standard.
-- Automakers, like the Obama administration, want one national program but also are focused on the cost of additional technology and the impact on sales. Automakers also want an automatic review of the standards after several years to ensure that targets set today can be met later.
Nominally, Browner's former assistant, Heather Zichal, assumed Browner's duties as White House climate adviser after her boss left earlier this year. That should mean that Zichal oversees the mpg talks. But privately some automakers say the federal agencies, not the White House, are driving the process.
Getting all four parties to agree on a reasonable compromise is the key.
Zichal might be the person to do it. Or it might be someone like Ron Bloom, the former auto czar and current manufacturing adviser, who understands the administration's environmental goals as well as the need to save and create jobs, not lose them.
Either way, the White House needs to get engaged sooner rather than later.