President Barack Obama is setting the nation's sights on vehicles that run on half the fuel they now use and give off half the pollution.
Obama on Friday directed the government to set the first-ever mileage and pollution limits for big trucks and to tighten rules for future cars and SUVs.
"The nation that leads in the clean energy economy will lead the global economy," Obama said at the White House. "And I want America to be that nation." The presidential memorandum he signed aims to reshape the country's driving habits long after he leaves office.
With the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico underscoring the risks of the country's heavy reliance on fossil fuels, Obama gave federal agencies just over a year to come up with fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas emission standards for commercial trucks and buses.
Such vehicles are big polluters and fuel consumers even though they're far outnumbered by passenger cars. The Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental advocacy group, said large trucks represent about 4 percent of all vehicles on U.S. highways but devour more than 20 percent of the fuel consumed.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, commercial trucks account for 21 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector — compared with 33 percent for passenger cars and 29 percent for SUVs, pickups and minivans.
The new standards, to be issued in July of next year, would apply to big trucks and buses for model years 2014-2018.
At the same time, the EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will get to work on stricter standards for cars and light trucks like SUVs to kick in with the 2017 model year and carry through 2025.
A year ago, Obama announced plans for the first federal regulations of fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions in cars and light trucks, for the 2012-2016 model years. Those standards, rolled out last month, aim at reaching a fleet average of 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016, nearly 10 miles per gallon better than the current average.
"I believe that it's possible in the next 20 years for vehicles to use half the fuel and produce half the pollution that they do today," he said.
Obama also asked the Energy Department to work with carmakers and others to promote the development of advanced vehicles, including plug-in hybrids and electric cars, and to give technical help to cities preparing for them.
The president is ahead of the schedule he promised as a candidate. On the campaign trail, Obama pushed for the standards to increase 4 percent every year, which would have resulted in new cars and trucks achieving a fleetwide 40 miles per gallon by 2022.
Steve Graham, a vice president at Schneider National, one of the nation's largest trucking companies, said truck prices could rise significantly as manufacturers make the changes need to comply with new rules.
While it's good to pursue fuel efficiency, he said, "we have to be mindful of unintended consequences."
AP Transportation Writer Samantha Bomkamp contributed to this report.
White House memo on fuel efficiency standards:
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