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Obama's promise: reduce dependence on foreign oil
Obama promised to reduce dependence on foreign oil. Obama promised to reduce dependence on foreign oil.

Obama promised to reduce dependence on foreign oil.

Becky Bowers
By Becky Bowers November 29, 2012

In 2008, candidate Barack Obama made a series of very specific energy promises.

His initiatives would reduce dependence on foreign oil, he said, by cutting American consumption by 2.5 million barrels a day. He would remove 50 million cars worth of pollution from the road and save American consumers more than $50 billion at the gas pump. (He didn't say how long it would take.)

Just one major policy initiative — fuel efficiency — is projected to meet those goals. A spokeswoman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration pointed out the administration's new fuel efficiency standards for cars and light-duty trucks should do all that — and in some cases more — by 2025.

Specifically, the Obama administration claims new rules for cars and light-duty trucks will:

• Save 12 billion barrels of oil by 2025, which works out to about 2.3 million a day. John O'Dell, an expert in fuel standards at auto information site who sits on a National Research Council committee on alternative fuels and vehicles, notes that population growth will consume some of that saved oil. Still, it represents a decrease in consumption from a world without the fuel standards. Meanwhile, the lack of a time frame in the original promise means any decrease over time would add up in Obama's favor.

Reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 6 billion metric tons. That easily works out to more than 50 million cars by 2025 when we did math, based on the Environmental Protection Agency's estimate of 5.1 metric tons per vehicle per year. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates savings in 2027 the equivalent of taking 70 million cars and light trucks off the road for a year.

Save consumers more than $1.7 trillion at the gas pump. That's far more than the $50 billion Obama's campaign promised. Note that consumer savings was promised "at the gas pump." Those savings will be at least partly offset by higher vehicle prices. So total pocketbook savings will depend on how long consumers keep their cars, among other things. O'Dell at expects very little payback to individual consumers, even if lower fuel costs compensate for higher vehicle prices over the life of a car. But the wording in the promise was specific to fuel costs.

The administration's estimates are based on a model that was largely lauded in a report from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, and accounts for some common points of criticism of fuel savings estimates, such as that drivers of more fuel-efficient vehicles may simply drive more, cutting into savings.

Meanwhile, independent groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists also calculate those standards would meet or exceed Obama's campaign goals in a similar time frame, by 2027 — and two years sooner if you throw in the administration's new standards for medium and heavy-duty trucks, according to David Friedman, deputy director for clean vehicles.

Still, even if the administration's projections are correct, the standards still aren't a guarantee. In fact, car and light truck standards for 2022-25 won't be finalized until after a mid term review and could shift depending on the auto industry's ability to meet them. (You can read the final rule for 2017 and later.)

Meanwhile, a report from the Republican-led House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on the administration's new auto regulations said the White House strong-armed automakers into agreeing to aggressive targets they may not be able to meet. Still, most auto companies say they'll be able to comply.

How are things going so far?

The Obama administration extended and expanded fuel efficiency standards boosted under President George W. Bush, and trends are headed in the right direction.

In 2011, the United States imported about 45 percent of the oil it consumed, the lowest level since 1995. The nine-month average for 2012 shows that percentage continuing to fall, with imports down, U.S. exports up and consumption down.

Still, it's important to note the drop in consumption isn't just a result of increased fuel efficiency. A weak economy has also contributed since 2008.

"Tightening of CAFE standards is a noteworthy accomplishment, but it's not the complete story," said Jim DiPeso, vice president for policy and communications for ConservAmerica, a conservative conservation group.

As the U.S. Energy Information Administration notes, there's no single explanation for reduced oil imports. The drop partly reflects economic weakness since the financial crisis in 2008, though it started earlier. The agency also notes factors such as "changes in efficiency and consumer behavior" and increases in domestic biofuel production. The agency projects that energy efficiency efforts, such as tighter fuel economy standards, will "prove increasingly important in moderating future demand growth."

We'll watch to see whether U.S. oil imports continue to fall. But based on projections of the impact of the Obama administration's fuel efficiency standards, we rate this Promise Kept.

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Obama's promise: reduce dependence on foreign oil