Can Fuel Economy Targets Survive All the Loopholes?

FILE - In this Tuesday, June 11, 2013 file photo, a motorist puts fuel in his car's gas tank at a service station in Springfi
FILE - In this Tuesday, June 11, 2013 file photo, a motorist puts fuel in his car's gas tank at a service station in Springfield, Ill. Ford said Thursday, Aug. 14, 2013, it will reduce gas mileage estimates for its C-Max hybrid, following a government investigation into consumer complaints that the car's actual mileage was lower, (AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File)

Under pollution-cutting mileage and emissions rules finalized in 2012 by the Obama administration, the fleet of new cars sold in the United States in 2025 must average 54.5 miles per gallon (mpg), with the fleet growing cleaner each year on the way to that strong standard.

However, a new report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) demonstrates how loopholes are letting most car makers get away with lower annual performance and still qualify as being in compliance.

The manufacturers successfully demanded the loopholes when they negotiated the standards with the administration. The loopholes let the companies undercut the rules' strong targets and turn out cars and light trucks that increase pollution. It's akin to a doctor telling you: "Go ahead and smoke, as long as you go on a diet."

It's time the companies act more responsibly.

Here's how the loopholes work:

• For each vehicle a company builds that is capable of running on E-85 ethanol (in addition to conventional gasoline,) the automaker can increase the number of gas guzzlers it builds. Never mind that fewer than 2 percent of the country's filling stations sell the corn-based E-85 fuel -- and that few drivers buy a drop of it.

• An automaker also gets permission to hit lower mileage targets if it improves its cars' and trucks' air-conditioning systems, making them gentler on the climate. Never mind that a company already planned to make the changes, regardless of the credits.

Yes, the rules' genuine fuel efficiency improvements cut oil use and save money at the pump. And, they reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, the major cause of global warming. Just look at how the industry did in 2012, the most recent year for which data is available: Despite the loopholes, new cars and light trucks delivered a 5 percent improvement in mileage -- an increase of 1.2 mpg -- over the previous year, the EPA reported in December.

But by letting automakers deliver more gas guzzlers, the loopholes create fantasy efficiency. In the long run, as we wrote in livescience, they threaten the effectiveness of the mileage-and-emissions program, the biggest single step any nation has taken to fight global warming.