Rolling back motor vehicle emissions standards: Reagan’s mistake will torpedo the Trump proposal
© Getty Images

The Trump administration continues to push its deregulatory agenda aimed squarely at environmental protection and the public health.

The latest effort is EPA’s proposal to amend the automobile emissions rule.


The current rule, which went into effect in 2012, limits air pollution from vehicles by requiring 25 mpg and calls for an increase to 50 mpg by 2025.

The administration would freeze the rule at current levels and cancel future gas mileage increases.

It is a dangerous proposal.

Canceling the planned increases in miles per gallon will add to global warming (from more carbon dioxide and other tailpipe emissions). It will also trigger major adverse health effects for millions of Americans from pollution-caused diseases, including up to 2,000 premature deaths a year from lung cancer, asthma and other causes.

The EPA bases its White House-directed freeze primarily on two unproven assumptions: (1) Future consumer-driving behavior if higher gas mileage standards go into effect- that is, people will drive more and have more accidents, and (2) predicted manufacturer response to the new emissions rules -that is, there will be less safety innovations.

In fact, as a result of the Clean Air Act, the current standard was written so that car companies could incorporate advanced materials and other technology to cut pollution, while continuing to allow for advanced safety systems to be implemented.

“Rolling back the existing standard's overall success,” says Jason Levine, Executive Director of the public-interest Center for Auto Safety, “will not improve future vehicle safety, or fuel economy, or keep more money in consumers’ wallets at the gas pump.”

Beyond discounting the existing standard’s strong track record, the Trump-EPA freeze involves a fatal mistake. It ignores a historic, 35-year-old U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case brought by consumer safety groups and State Farm Insurance Company.

The decision in State Farm tossed out Ronald Reagan’s similar effort to repeal a rule, in that case, the passive restraint (air bag) safety rule Reagan inherited from the Carter administration. It is a mirror of the current EPA effort.

The Supreme Court, in that case held unanimously that the air bag rule, had the force of law, and could be changed only by producing adequate evidence supporting the change and proving that the evidence was logically related to the new proposal. Since the Reagan administration had not produced any new evidence, the air bag rule remained in effect. It is the law today. It has saved over 2,500 lives a year.

As in Reagan’s case, the Trump effort is based largely on politically driven assumptions, not evidence.

According to Antonio Bento, professor of public policy and economics at the University of Southern California, in an interview with the Washington Post, “Trump Administration officials seem to have ‘cherry picked’ the effects that would lead to the conclusion they wanted.”

Bento, whose work was relied on throughout the Trump-EPA analysis, also told the Post that real world evidence doesn’t support such assumptions. 

The 2012 gas mileage emissions standard was adopted during the Obama administration after the EPA held extensive hearings and negotiated at length with major affected constituencies, such as the motor vehicle industry, states (in particular California, which was authorized to go beyond the federal emissions rule) and environmental and scientific organizations.

The EPA must act as it did then and must do now, under the mandate of the Clean Air Act providing: the Administrator “...shall prescribe standards applicable to the emission of air pollutants from any class of new motor vehicles which, in his judgment, cause air pollution to be reasonably anticipated to endanger public health.” (Emphasis added).

Even while trying to change the current emissions standard and undermine the basis of the 2012 rule, the Trump-EPA continues to publicly boast on its web site and in agency reports that the “…landmark Clean Air Act is…a major success story”.  

Its own public statements highlight these points: 

-- motor vehicle fuels are 98 percent cleaner than in 1960, prior to the Clean Air regulations

-- federal standards have sparked new technology by the auto industry, such as catalytic converters and fuel injection

--auto safety improvements such as forward crash avoidance and electronic stability control have been developed at the same time as lower air pollution was required.

The EPA proposal to weaken emissions control will be challenged in court by California and up to 17 other states. The Trump administration will have to provide evidence that the repeal is supported by adequate evidence and by the act. It cannot build a record on unproven assumptions.

The Trump emissions rollback is unlikely to survive the challenge.

Michael R. Lemov is an attorney who served as Counsel for the House Commerce Committee under Congressman John E. Moss. He is the author of “People’s Warrior:  John Moss and the Fight for Freedom of Information and Consumer Rights; (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2011,) and Car Safety Wars: 100 Years of Technology, Politics and Death”; (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2015.)