As director of the EPA's Office of Transportation and Air Quality, Margo Oge helped lead the charge to implement federal regulations designed to slash vehicle emissions and double fuel economy to a 54.5 mpg average by the 2025 model year. Those rules, finalized in 2012, harmonized auto industry regulations imposed by the EPA, Department of Transportation and California state authorities for the first time, and have become a major part of the Obama administration's push to slow climate change.
But first, as Oge explains in a book released last month, she had to get automakers on board with the plan:
In early July 2011, I walk up the five steps of 722 Jackson Place, a nineteenth-century brownstone within hailing distance of the White House. This building belongs to the White House's Council on Environmental Quality. Today, CEQ is hosting our meeting with Ford.
Once inside, I turn left into a large conference room. On the right is a rectangular table. Soon, Ron Medford and his NHTSA team are seated at the far side. Gina [McCarthy, then assistant EPA administrator for air and radiation], Chet [France, director of the assessment and standards division of the EPA's Ann Arbor labs] and I sit opposite them. Ron Bloom limps in, a cast on his recently broken foot from a running accident. He sits at the head of the table facing the door. To his right is Sue Cischke, a thirty-five-year veteran of the auto industry.
Soon after the meeting starts, Chet lays out our proposal for Ford to increase the fuel efficiency of its cars and trucks by 5 percent every year between 2017 and 2025. Sue's mouth flattens into a thin line and she rolls her eyes. I'm sitting next to the door, half expecting Sue to get up and walk out. Ford is probably the most forward-looking American company. If it won't stay at the table, we'll definitely lose GM and Chrysler.
"You guys don't know what you're talking about," says Sue. She flashes to me. "Were you hearing what I was saying? We showed you everything we had. You have totally overestimated what we can do with trucks." During our discussions regarding the 2016 standards, she had told me that those standards would already be hard to reach for pickups. She is talking to me now, but I'm still not sure she won't walk out.
"Sue," I say, "is it the cars or is it the trucks?''
She doesn't answer me directly, but she spends most of the shortened meeting talking about trucks. She isn't happy but does agree to have our tech teams get together in Michigan the next day. We have always assumed that our proposed truck improvements will be negotiated down, but if we can get them to share their data with us, then we can zero in on what they really can do. Our plan is to get Ford to agree and then bring in GM and Chrysler. If the domestic automakers are in, it will be hard for many of the foreign manufacturers to say no.
Out in Ann Arbor the next day, [EPA technical adviser] Bill Charmley begins talks with his counterparts at Ford. After years of working with us, Ford is more comfortable with the EPA and its lab than with any other federal agency. Ford begins sharing their technical data on sheets that they retrieve at the end of the meeting. "There's no way," an engineer says, "we'd email you or show you this stuff at Jackson Place--not with all those other people around."
For the next few weeks, Bill has his team of engineers and modelers looking at all the new information and trying to come up with technical solutions to the problems remaining.
Meanwhile, we are at the Council on Environmental Quality's office near the White House, holding multiple parallel meetings with car companies. The process is simultaneously ever changing and frustratingly slow.
Ford has invested more in understanding the government's technical framework. Now they are getting into the weeds, seeing the evolution of vehicles and mileage. We are beginning to create a productive technical dialogue.
GM doesn't have the same kind of engagement. [T]hey are claiming to have tried everything.
Chrysler continues to express concerns about the ability of their trucks to make significant improvements beyond 2016. Toyota and Honda both want a special break for hybrids, but we want this agreement to encourage the growth of new, revolutionary technologies. The German companies want special breaks for advanced clean diesel vehicles, but the diesel engine is hardly a breakthrough. VW simply says they've run the numbers, and it doesn't work. Hyundai is still ready to do 6 percent.
Car companies always feel that the regulators are being aggressive and don't understand the technologies, costs, economic impacts, or market. We are there to talk them down. For our part, we also assume they aren't showing us all their cards--at least not up front. Trust is a valuable but fleeting currency.
Mary Nichols is having a hard time believing practically any of the numbers companies are offering. More often than not, she's probably right not to. Meanwhile, NHTSA is having a hard time with some of the legal issues. But we need the confidence of everyone in the building, or we'll have a hard time coming up with any agreement.
Between sessions, some of us step onto the sweltering patio out back to grab a Coke or a piece of pizza. At night we huddle over cups of coffee inside.
Ron Bloom isn't nearly as involved in the details as Jody [Freeman, a lawyer working out of climate czar Carol Browner's office at the White House in 2009] was, but he is still an extraordinary negotiator, moving the agreement forward. In one late night session, he becomes increasingly annoyed at the inflexibility of NHTSA's attorneys. When we reach a creative solution for one problem at about 10:00 p.m., Ron checks with the lawyers in the room.
"Yeah, we can do this," says our team.
Ron automatically turns to NHTSA's team. "I suppose you can't."
We go back to discussing other options. A few minutes later, the NHTSA attorney raises his hand. "Actually, I think we can do this."
Ron stares back. "Son of a bitch! Now we can do it?"
Eventually, we get the domestic companies interested with two proposals. One is a 5 percent annual increase in fuel efficiency for cars and a 3.5 percent increase for trucks. Because 2025 goes beyond the automakers' normal five-year-increment planning process, we offer a review to measure the car companies' success in 2018 and determine whether the required efficiencies should either stay the same or be lowered.
But the agreement on trucks upsets Honda and Toyota, who accuse us of bias toward domestic companies. At one point Toyota's representatives threaten to stop production of trucks in America, while Honda's team is raving about adjustments they want for small cars. Meanwhile, Mercedes and VW want special consideration for diesel cars.
Then BMW moves toward signing on after we offer them incentives on electric car technology. Chrysler, because of the merger with Fiat, now has a natural gas car with a very small gas-powered engine that they feel good about.
But by the third week we still don't have a proposal locked down.
Ron takes me aside to say that Ford is getting pushed by the Michigan congressional delegation not to make a deal. "If we don't get GM, then Ford will split." And if Ford isn't in, then Chrysler will drop out.
Fortunately, the dominoes fall our way. On the third Sunday, Ford and GM come on board. Chrysler follows. Then Toyota and Honda come in, somewhat unhappily.
On July 29, 2011, a fleet of shiny new cars, SUVs, and pickup trucks serves as a gleaming backdrop for President Obama as he strides across a brightly lit convention center stage. He quickly shakes the hands of thirteen smiling auto CEOs and senior executives before stepping to the lectern and announcing some of the stiffest new regulations on automobiles in decades.