Unreasonable demands stifle real environmental progress

Unreasonable demands stifle real environmental progress
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For a moment, ignore the all-encompassing, hyperpartisan rhetoric that’s filling your head these past few weeks and focus on real, everyday people. Do you (seriously) know anyone who wants dirty air and less-efficient vehicles? Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards that mandate minimum levels of fuel efficiency in automobile fleets are used today to move us toward cleaner, more efficient vehicles. But when those standards are set at unreasonably strict levels, they can damage the environment and human health.

That’s why, once we are able to get past the politics, the Trump administration’s proposal to pull back from the 2012 CAFE standards actually will prove to be good for both human and environmental health.

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The Trump administration’s stated reason for proposing the Aug. 2 SAFE Vehicle Rule was to “increase vehicle affordability, leading to increased driving of newer, safer, more efficient and cleaner vehicles.” In my Sept. 25 testimony at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) public hearing on the rule, I agreed with that goal, saying, “All regulatory agencies should recognize the need to balance the social, environmental and economic impacts of their actions.”

This proposed 50-state rule manages to balance environmental and economic realities by pausing mandated emissions reductions at the 2020 level of 37 mpg. It still requires improved fuel efficiency and reduced emissions — compared to today’s efficiency ratings — while emphasizing the importance of “safety, economics, technology, fuel conservation and pollution reduction.”

But the rule is a clear move away from the 2012 CAFE standards that were put in place by the Obama administration’s EPA. The 2012 standard effectively doubled the fuel efficiency requirements for American automobile manufacturers and mandated that new cars have an average fuel efficiency of 54.5 miles per gallon by the year 2025.

Demanding higher fuel efficiencies may seem like a great idea; after all, as noted above, Americans want cleaner air and more efficient cars. At the same time, they want those cars to be affordable. But the EPA and Department of Transportation have reported that the 2012 mandates would add massive costs to the U.S. economy and actually put more people at risk of being injured or killed in traffic accidents.

EPA and NHTSA information indicates that the proposed SAFE Vehicles Rule would save more than $500 billion “in societal costs over the lifetimes of vehicles through model year 2029.” The rule also would reduce the price of new vehicles by an average of $2,340 and could reduce the number of traffic fatalities — caused by collisions of smaller, lighter cars with heavier SUVs and trucks — by over 12,700. More than 1,000 lives saved per year.

Some critics have claimed that the crash fatality projections are not realistic. But even if we wholly ignore that line of argument, we still should recognize that CAFE standards originally were meant to address a now-nonexistent problem of dwindling fuel supplies. With the advent and widespread use of fracking technologies, the U.S. is no longer at the mercy of world oil markets. The U.S. produces over 10 million barrels of crude oil per day, and the gasoline shortages and gas station lines of the 1970s are a distant memory.

Critics of the new rule will argue that this is no solution because more oil and gas just means more driving miles and, in turn, increased pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. But EPA numbers also show that, whether we keep the 2012 standard or move forward with the proposed SAFE Vehicle Rule, there will be “no noticeable impact” on overall emissions of what are known as “criteria air pollutants” — particulate matter, ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur and nitrogen dioxides and lead.

Additionally, moving ahead with the proposed standard would only result in a 0.08 percent increase in atmospheric CO2 levels by 2100, which would equate to a temperature increase of 0.003 degrees Celsius. We can’t even reliably measure that temperature change with current thermometers.

We all want a greener, cleaner environment. We all want more efficient and affordable transportation. But, reaching back to my testimony at the EPA/NHTSA hearing, we have to recognize that “at some point, the endless press for ever-stricter environmental regulation actually harms consumers and the environment. But reasonable regulations can balance environmental, social and economic pressures.”

Jason Hayes is director of environmental policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, an educational and research organization based in Midland, Michigan. Follow him on Twitter @jasonthayes.