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Becky Bowers
By Becky Bowers January 6, 2012

Ad says President Barack Obama put in place 'historic fuel efficiency standards'

With all eyes on Iowa for the Republican caucuses in the first days of 2012, the Democratic contender for president reminded watchers of his own Iowa win — and what he has done to keep his campaign promises.

Obama for America bought banner ads across the home page of the online Des Moines Register on Jan. 3, 2012, with a link to highlights from Obama's 2008 victory speech.

Music plays as candidate Barack Obama promises action on health care, taxes, energy independence and the war in Iraq. Between clips, white text across the screen highlights President Obama's policy accomplishments.

For example, after candidate Obama declares, "I'll be a president who harnesses the ingenuity of farmers and scientists and entrepreneurs to free this nation from the tyranny of oil once and for all!" the next three screens show an image of him driving a car and the words: "Put in place historic fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks to lower costs at the pump and reduce dependence on foreign oil."

We wondered, did Obama do that?

New standards

Obama has announced new fuel economy standards — more than once — taking part in the bipartisan practice of updating rules in place since the 1970s Arab oil embargo.

The most recent update, announced in July 2011, covers cars and light trucks made from 2017-2025, requiring an average of 54.5 miles per gallon in 2025.

The year before, a new rule required cars and light trucks combined to get an average of 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. (PolitiFact in April 2010 weighed his campaign promise to "increase fuel economy standards," and ruled it a Promise Kept.)

But were those changes "historic"? (Which we take to mean in some way unprecedented, or as Merriam-Webster puts it "having great and lasting importance.")

"A lot of what Obama's doing is really extending what President Bush started," said Jeremy Anwyl, vice chairman for automotive information site

And President George W. Bush extended work started by his predecessors.

Still, Obama's push for the first time will require medium- and heavy-duty trucks to meet fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas emission standards, starting in 2014. It's also twice as long as previous plans. Meanwhile, while automakers have so far met boosted standards by updating traditional engines, Anwyl says those relatively inexpensive gains won't carry companies through lofty goals set for the end of the decade.

"There has to be some kind of breakthrough, and nobody knows what it's going to be," he said.

'Lower costs at the pump'

Will those changes lower costs at the pump, as the ad said?

The White House, along with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, argue a family that buys a new vehicle in 2025 will save $8,200 in fuel costs compared with driving a similar one in 2010. 

Of course, those savings are likely to be offset by the higher sticker prices on the cars themselves, since meeting the 2025 standards will require expensive technology — now in just a few, mostly high-end vehicles, according to — to be widely used in cars and trucks. 

How much will prices go up? It's not clear. reports estimates range from nearly $1,000 to $9,300 per vehicle. EPA and NHTSA say it'll be closer to $1,400 to $2,600 per purchase.

So, lower costs at the pump, yes. But lower costs for consumers? That's not a given.

Reducing dependence

From the origins of fuel economy standards in the '70s, the policy focus has been "energy independence and security," according to NHTSA.

Some observers, such as Peter Huber and Mark Mills, authors of a 2005 book The Bottomless Well, have argued that greater efficiency doesn't actually reduce consumption. Instead, lower costs to drive simply stimulate more demand. A Boston Globe editorial this year calls energy independence "a pipe dream," saying that 35 years of such mandates haven't reversed the U.S. demand for oil. They point out highway fuel consumption has grown from 109 billion gallons in 1975 to 175 billion gallons in 2008.

Lynda Tran, spokeswoman for NHTSA, points out population growth plays a role in that change. She argues petroleum imports would need to be much higher to meet demand if the average passenger car fuel economy was still at the 1978 standard of 18 mpg and light truck fuel economy was still at the 1979 standard of 15.8 mpg to 17.2 mpg. 

The last time passenger car fuel economy standards increased significantly was between 1978 and 1983, when it jumped from 18 to 26 mpg. During the same time, consumption dropped, along with imports, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Meanwhile, standards didn't change much from 1983 to 2005, and consumption and imports increased — because of an increase in miles driven, Tran said.

So the new standards, Tran said, "will reduce oil imports from what they would be if there were no improvements in passenger car and light truck fuel economy."

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Our ruling

The Obama administration has launched new fuel efficiency standards. They're not exactly a break from the past, but they do significantly raise the bar for automakers over the next decade. Fuel costs for new-car drivers will drop, though it's important to point out they'll likely pay more up front for more efficient machines. Meanwhile, past increases in fuel standards have pushed down foreign petroleum imports — though consumption overall is up, partly because there are more of us, and we drive more than we used to. Those factors mean even more efficiency might not reduce imports. The ad's statement that Obama "put in place historic fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks to lower costs at the pump and reduce dependence on foreign oil," is partially accurate, but leaves out some important details. We rate it Half True.

Our Sources

Obama for America, "2008 Iowa Caucus Victory Speech: Promises Kept," YouTube, Jan. 3, 2012, "As Republicans Caucus, Obama Campaign Buys Premium Iowa Ad Space," Jan. 3, 2012

White House Blog, "President Obama Announces New Fuel Economy Standards," July 29, 2011

Associated Press, "Obama pushing higher fuel efficiency standards," May 20, 2010, via

Politifact Obameter, "Raise fuel economy standards," updated April 5, 2010 (Promise Kept)

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, "FACTSHEET: Paving the Way Toward Cleaner, More Efficient Trucks

Interview with Jeremy Anwyl, vice chairman for, Jan. 4, 2012, "FAQ: New Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards," Nov. 10, 2011

White House, "Driving Efficiency: Cutting Costs for Families at the Pump and Slashing Dependence on Oil," July 29, 2011

Environmental Defense Fund, "EPA Adopts First National Greenhouse Gas Pollution Standards in U.S. History," April 1, 2010

Natural Resources Defense Council, "EPA's New Clean Car Standards: The Right Kind of Energy Solution," by Frances Beinecke, April 1, 2010

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, "Next phase in national program for light-duty vehicles will save consumers thousands of dollars at the pump while saving billions of barrels of oil, curbing pollution, enabling long-term planning for automakers," Nov. 16, 2011

Environmental Protection Agency, "We Can't Wait," Nov. 16, 2011

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, "CAFE - Fuel Economy," accessed Jan. 5, 2012

Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, "The Bottomless Well," 2005

Boston Globe, "'Energy independence' is a pipe dream," Aug. 7, 2011, "Where Are Oil Prices Headed," Nov. 15, 2011

New York Times, "New Technologies Redraw the World’s Energy Picture," Oct. 25, 2011

Email interview with Lynda Tran, director of communications for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Jan. 4, 2011

U.S. Energy Information Administration, "How dependent are we on foreign oil?" June 24, 2011

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