Green activists up the pressure on automobile efficiency standards

Green activists up the pressure on automobile efficiency standards
© Greg Nash

Raise your hand if you agree that the idea behind federal automobile emissions standards is to help improve the environment. Raise your hand if you agree that getting more efficient and safer vehicles on the road will help achieve that long-term goal. If you’ve raised your hand, even figuratively, you should applaud one result of the EPA’s midterm evaluation process, which is a proposal to revise greenhouse gas emission standards for light-duty vehicles.

Of course opponents of the revisions, such as California Gov. Jerry Brown, clearly disagree. Brown recently called EPA Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOn The Money: New financial disclosures provide glimpse of Trump's wealth | Walmart, Macy's say tariffs will mean price hikes | Consumer agency says Education Department blocking student loan oversight Overnight Energy: EPA watchdog finds Pruitt spent 4K on 'excessive' travel | Agency defends Pruitt expenses | Lawmakers push EPA to recover money | Inslee proposes spending T for green jobs Lawmakers take EPA head to task for refusing to demand Pruitt repay travel expenses MORE “not Administrator Pruitt, but outlaw Pruitt.” Brown claimed his opposition to the revised standard is “about health, it’s about life and death” and promised to “fight it with everything I can.” But, even a small step back from the fray allows one to see the real-life implications of the previous standards: higher prices on new vehicles, which would encourage older, less efficient, less safe vehicles to stay on the road.

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At issue is the Trump administration’s plans to revise greenhouse gas emissions standards for light-duty vehicles. In 2012, the Obama EPA published new standards that would force automobile manufacturers to up the average fuel efficiency of their fleets to over 50 miles per gallon by 2025, effectively doubling the earlier standard. The EPA promised to complete a “Midterm Evaluation” of those standards by April 2018.

 

After the election of President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - White House, Congress: Urgency of now around budget GOP presses Trump to make a deal on spending Democrats wary of handing Trump a win on infrastructure MORE, the Obama administration sped the review through, publishing it just ahead of Trump’s inauguration in January 2017. But, the automobile industry pushed back, claiming the new standard ignored economic reality.

Once in office, Trump promised that his administration would reinstate and complete the full review. In April, the EPA released a draft of new regulations that would revise the rushed Obama-era standards by pausing them at 2020 levels.

Auto industry representatives commented on the draft regulations at an April 4, 2018, event the EPA held to unveil the midterm review. It is fair to critique an event where the industry being regulated introduces and speaks on the same stage as the regulator. But a fair critique will also recognize that Peter WelchPeter Francis WelchBernie Sanders is hypocritical on most significant campaign issues Booker takes early lead in 2020 endorsements Divisions emerge over House drug price bills MORE, president and CEO of National Automobile Dealers Association, agreed with the thrust of the original standards. Welch highlighted the value of matching environmental efficiency with economic reality. He noted that “auto dealers fully support continuous improvements in fuel economy,” while also recognizing the balance between setting standards and keeping businesses operating. He noted that “the key to the equation isn’t just the highest possible standard. It’s the highest standard we can achieve while keeping vehicles affordable.”

Welch said that monthly payments rank as a top concern for American car buyers and cautioned that unreasonably strict environmental regulations could put new car prices beyond the average American’s reach. He’s right: If new car prices are too high, people will chose to stay in older, less efficient, and less safe cars. If that happens, government regulators will have neutered their goal of a cleaner automobile fleet.

Following Welch, Mitch Bainwol, president and CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, addressed claims that the revisions of the rule amounted to a rollback of environmental standards. “Automakers … support targets rising year over year. … No one, no one is advocating a freeze or roll back from today’s numbers.”

In his remarks, Pruitt echoed the ideas expressed by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne when he spoke at the Detroit auto show in January. Marchionne said that Chrysler currently makes electric vehicles only because of government regulations. Pruitt seemed to concur, noting that the federal government’s regulatory “focus in the past has been on making manufacturers … make cars that people aren’t going to buy.” In contrast, he said, “Our focus should be on making cars that people purchase actually more efficient. To have arbitrary percentages of our fleet made up of vehicles that aren’t going to be purchased … defeats the very purpose of what the CAFÉ standards are supposed to address.”

Those who desire a greener environment and more efficient and clean automobile fleet should move past their distrust of the Trump administration and automobile manufacturers. The reason is simple: At some point, the endless press for ever-stricter environmental regulation actually harms the environment.

Automobile manufacturers are on record supporting continuous improvements in fuel efficiency. They’re working with regulators to achieve demonstrable improvements in fuel efficiency and to reduce emissions. But layering unaffordable regulatory schemes onto the American consumer ultimately damages both the economy and environment. Green groups should realize, you’ve already won this fight. Why snatch defeat from the jaws of victory?

Jason Hayes is director of environmental policy at The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market research and education institute in Midland, Michigan.