Emission Standards: Watch the Pothole

May 19, 2009 8:23am

Public opinion is broadly on the side of the stricter auto emissions and fuel efficiency standards the Obama administration’s announcing today. But there’s one possible pothole: the price.

In a poll we did last summer, 78 percent of Americans favored tougher fuel efficiency standards for cars; it was about the same in a Marist poll last month, and indeed has been at that level for many years. In a poll of our own last month, meanwhile, 75 percent favored federal regulation of greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to reduce global warming; 54 percent "strongly" supported such regulations, a high level of strong support.

But these views do look price sensitive. In our ABC/Post poll last month 77 percent expressed concern that regulation of greenhouse gases could raise prices. And when an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last month asked about requiring companies to cut greenhouse gases "even if it would mean higher utility bills for consumers to pay for the changes," support was much lower, 53 percent.

We lack recent data specifically on the impact of cost on support for fuel efficiency standards. But back in 2003, a CBS poll found initial support at 76 percent, declining to 59 percent (still a good majority) if it meant it would cost more to buy or lease a car. That, though, was a pre-recession reading.

Questions – both substantively and in the spin contest – include how much the policies in fact cost and whether and how vehicle price increases might be offset. An administration official last night said the new policies should cost an average of $600 per vehicle, but also said that’ll be offset by lower fuel consumption. For a car bought on a 60-month loan, he said, it ought to be a wash.

Again, costs – and how they’re perceived – can matter. In our poll on environmental issues last summer, 59 percent supported a cap and trade system to cut greenhouse gas emissions. That held about steady, 57 percent, if the program worked but also raised electricity bills by $10 a month. But if it raised bills by $25 – even if it significantly cut emissions – support fell under half, to 47 percent.

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