Trump administration rollbacks on vehicle emissions and fuel efficiency standards deter national climate efforts
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As long anticipated, the Trump administration has proposed a significant roll-back of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions standards issued by the Obama administration. The proposed rulemaking would also revoke California’s right to establish its own more rigorous emissions standards under the federal Clean Air Act, as amended (CAA).

In so doing, the Trump administration would freeze in place the commitments made by the Bush and Obama administrations to steadily increase motor vehicle fuel economy and to reduce pollutants caused by surface transportation. Moreover, the revocation of the California clean air waiver would end years of allowing California and the other jurisdictions that follow its lead to establish more rigorous air quality standards.


The roll-back in these standards would have serious consequences for American efforts to protect the nation’s economy from its dependence on oil and to mitigate global climate change, while the proposed rule’s alleged economic and safety benefits are dubious, at best. The economic benefits of the current standards are greatly understated, and the safety benefits of the proposed ones are significantly overstated.

Under the 2007 Supreme Court decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, the federal government was directed to regulate GHG emissions from motor vehicles as pollutants under the CAA. Since that time, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of U.S. Department of Transportation (NHTSA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have issued fuel efficiency and GHG emissions standards jointly.

The Bush and Obama administrations carefully considered the safety and economic impacts of the fuel efficiency standards they sought to implement, as well as the technical and engineering capacity of the automobile industry to achieve them.

When the CAFE standards were first put in place in the 1970s, automobile manufacturers sought to comply with fuel efficiency requirements by producing smaller and lighter cars that raised significant safety concerns. More recently – and projected for the future – are reductions in weight that derive from advanced design and manufacturing processes, and lighter, but stronger, materials. Improvements to automobile design and materials, more efficient engines, transmissions, and power trains, and greater hybridization of motor vehicles are already in place or are “on the shelf.”

The renewal of activity in raising fuel efficiency standards and in reducing GHG emissions from the transportation sector during the Bush and Obama administrations have been the most significant federal government actions to mitigate the nation’s impact on global warming and climate change. The roll-back of those efforts and the substantial weakening of the regulations that implement those policy goals will cause incalculable damage to economic, public health, and national security interests, related to the effects of a rapidly and dangerously increasing pace of climate change.

When President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump nominates Jeffrey Rosen to replace Rosenstein at DOJ McCabe says ‘it’s possible’ Trump is a Russian asset McCabe: Trump ‘undermining the role of law enforcement’ MORE abdicated the U.S.’s responsibility to adhere to the commitments outlined in the Paris Climate Agreement, cities and states around the country, California in the lead, vowed to help the U.S. keep its promises. California must demonstrate “compelling and extraordinary” circumstances in order to maintain the CAA waiver (a matter that will, no doubt, be litigated). Rigorous GHG emissions standards are essential elements of the state’s comprehensive clean cars program, and as such, California continues to have a compelling interest in maintaining them.

It appears that the Trump administration, in proposing to freeze automobile fuel efficiency and emissions standards, has allowed its policy goals to drive the analyses of the issues and impacts. Those goals are to apply the Trump administration’s commitment to deregulation and its disinterest in pursuing policies and programs to mitigate the causes of climate change. Whether these proposed actions are consistent with the requirements of fuel efficiency and air quality legislation is a matter that ultimately will be resolved in the courts.

Emil H. Frankel, a Senior Fellow at the Eno Center for Transportation, was Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation under President George W. Bush. Brianne Eby is a policy analyst at the Eno Center for Transportation. The views expressed above are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Eno Center for Transportation.