By on July 20, 2011

The debate over 2025 CAFE standards will continue to rage all summer long, but if there’s one thing I learned from the industry lobbyists that I spoke to in Washington D.C. a few weeks ago, it’s that the media debate severely lags the conversation that’s going on behind closed doors. It’s a frustrating situation for commentators who hope to influence the process, but then D.C. debates are rarely about the ideas anyway. But environmental groups who hope to come between an industry that’s already relatively well-positioned for short-to-medium-term standards and a government that’s more interested in helping the industry than ever are still hoping to bring some public pressure to bear on an issue that, according to my sources anyway, was already largely settled weeks ago. Bloomberg [via AN [sub]] reports that

The auto industry is pressing the Obama administration for a promise to reevaluate rules that may more than double U.S. fuel economy standards by 2025 before they become final…

Still under negotiation are details of the midpoint review, including the timing, whether there will be a judicial review and whether the Environmental Protection Agency, the Transportation Department and California’s Air Resources Board will coordinate efforts, Gleberman said.

Environmental groups oppose the midterm review, saying it’s a gambit by automakers seeking to kill the program at the halfway point, when a president more friendly to the industry may be in office, said Dan Becker, director of the Washington-based Safe Climate Campaign.

According to my sources, a mid-way review of 2017-2025 standards was agreed to in principle by all the major stakeholder stakeholders some time ago. And for obvious reasons: with disruptive new technologies under development and the trajectory of fuel prices remaining an unknown quantity, nobody knows precisely what technologies will be available and what the market will demand come 2017. Like California’s ZEV mandate, a push to kill the mid-term review makes CAFE even less responsive to the market than it already is. If anything, environmental groups should embrace a review of current standards because there’s a good chance fuel prices will be higher and the nation will be more determined than ever to sacrifice for higher emissions standards. Besides, if CAFE loses touch with the market and has no opportunity to sync back up, the industry could be in for another disastrous downturn. And no matter how pro-regulation you are, it’s tough to argue that CAFE should be totally unresponsive to market forces. Unless you know exactly what the market will look like in 2025 (in which case, let’s start a hedge fund), trying to set 2025 emissions standards in stone now makes no sense at all.

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