In recent weeks, it appeared that major auto companies had finally stopped fighting higher fuel economy standards—and were ready to make it happen. But backsliding and heel dragging is back in season.

Issa and Toyoda

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. and Toyota President Akio Toyoda in Washington in February.

“Whatever goal [the Obama administration] establishes, Toyota will be prepared to meet,” said Jim Colon, Toyota vice president, speaking at the recent Washington auto show. “If it’s 62 miles a gallon, we’ll be able to achieve that.”

“I think the industry can do anything it wants when it puts its mind to it,” Mark Reuss, General Motors’ top North American executive, said at the National Automobile Dealers Association annual convention, earlier this month.

Meanwhile on Capital Hill, Republican House Oversight Committee chairman Darrell Issa in January enlisted more than 160 industry groups and conservative organizations to submit letters testifying to a recent perceived “overregulation” of corporate activity. Central to the letters were complaints about the EPA and other federal and state regulatory bodies that have sought to step up environmental enforcement in areas like industrial emissions and automobile fuel economy.

Two Faces

In a letter submitted by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers—a lobbying organization whose members include General Motors, Toyota and 10 other automakers—the group’s vice president Shane Karr said that his industry faces the prospect of losing as much as 25 percent of its light vehicle sales if the EPA increases its Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard to a proposed 60 mpg by 2025. “At the federal level, it is critical that standards carefully balance the important national interests of reducing oil use and GHG gas emissions while supporting continued economic growth and jobs,” wrote Karr. “If consumers do not buy the vehicles that manufacturers are required to produce, sales will fall, production will slow and manufacturers will be forced to eliminate jobs.”

This comes at a time when AAM members have made great strides in producing affordable high-mpg cars, and are prominently featuring their hybrids and plug-in cars in advertising campaigns. The Alliance is running its own campaign demonstrating how its members are now offering 160 innovative high-mpg models.

Shane’s letter also expressed concern that the California Air Resources Board could act to subvert the EPA process by enacting its own standards in advance of a final ruling. As the United States’s largest car market, the Golden State has for decades used its leverage to move the industry toward cleaner, more fuel efficient cars. But the industry contends that California and the 14 other states that follow CARB guidelines are overstepping their powers in creating separate fuel economy benchmarks to those of the federal government.

This is the same argument that the auto industry made for decades, but that was apparently resolved in 2009 when President Obama ended a years-long battle between California and the federal government over the state’s attempt to create a separate fuel economy mandate. The parties agreed on a matching set of CAFE standards for the years 2012 through 2016, and already started the push to even higher MPG numbers for 2017 through 2025.

In a response letter admonishing AAM member corporations like Toyota, Ford, and General Motors for not staying the course, Mary Nichols, chairman of the California Air Resources Board, took issue with the alliance’s assertions. “For the Alliance to suggest we are no longer committed to a cooperative effort is disingenuous at best, and incorrect,” wrote Nichols. She said that Karr’s letter to the Oversight Committee “brings into question the auto industry’s desire for continued cooperation.”