The pandemic hasn't stopped Trump's rollback of Clean Car Standards

The pandemic hasn't stopped Trump's rollback of Clean Car Standards
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Life as we knew it has been canceled, but that hasn’t stopped the Trump administration from moving forward with its short-sighted plan to roll back automotive emissions standards. Reprehensibly, under cover of the coronavirus pandemic, today Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency announced it had finalized a rule, which dismantles regulations that have successfully reduced car greenhouse gas emissions and improved fuel economy. 

This destructive action will also hammer the budgets of American families and fatten oil company profits.

As an EPA senior engineer, I worked for over a decade on the development of the agency’s previous Clean Car Standards, which were set under President Obama in 2010 and 2012 and have been an economic and environmental success story. 

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Those standards were designed to require new vehicles, regardless of size, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions every year through 2025. To date, automakers have achieved record sales, consumers have saved more on gasoline than they have spent on emissions-reducing technologies and emissions have dropped.

I can attest that major concessions were made to obtain the support of the auto industry. The automakers wanted separate standards for cars and trucks, and the EPA agreed. The automakers wanted the standards to remain neutral for vehicles of different sizes, and EPA agreed. The automakers wanted the standards to improve more slowly at first and more aggressively later, and the EPA agreed. The automakers wanted credits for emissions-reducing technologies not captured by tests, and the EPA agreed.

The CEOs of General Motors, Ford, FiatChrysler and other automakers hailed the standards; no major lawsuits were filed, which is practically unheard of for such a major regulation. But automakers could not resist the temptation to try to weaken the standards after the 2016 election.

The so-called Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient Vehicles Rule (SAFE) now in effect eviscerates the existing greenhouse gas emissions and fuel economy standards. The previous standards would have required automakers to slowly increase average real-world fuel economy for new vehicles from 28 mpg in 2020 to about 36 mpg by 2025. The new rule reduces the necessary improvement by about two-thirds, to less than 31 mpg in 2025.

The Trump administration rollback will be an environmental and economic disaster. Using the government’s own models, the rollback will increase cumulative greenhouse gas emissions by about 1.5 billion metric tons through 2040, which will lead to a hotter and more dangerous planet. Due to less efficient vehicles, consumers will pay $244 billion more for gasoline over the next 20 years, taking money from their pockets and sending it to oil companies. 

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The technical analyses behind both the 2018 proposed rule and the final rule were prepared by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which has little fuel economy or auto emissions expertise. It does not have a vehicle test laboratory and has never performed a vehicle fuel economy or emissions test. EPA’s internationally recognized laboratory in Ann Arbor, Mich., where I worked for 40 years, has primary expertise in this field. 

The 2018 NHTSA analysis was biased and misleading. NHTSA completely cooked the books to get the answers that the White House wanted. The documents were ridiculed by EPA staff (whose world-class expertise was totally ignored by NHTSA and EPA’s political leadership), safety experts, academic economists, environmental and consumer groups, and even some automakers.

But perhaps most alarming is that SAFE will not actually make the road safer — as the administration has asserted — to justify the rollback. NHTSA projected that as cars got more expensive, ostensibly due to rising fuel economy, the number of drivers would increase by millions and traffic accidents would go up. In its proposal, the agency estimated the new rules would decrease the number of lives lost in vehicle accidents by 1,000 per year. The administration used this assumption to inflate the costs of stricter fuel economy. In reality, when calculated properly, SAFE could increase traffic deaths and will worsen air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

The analysis released with the final rule corrected some of the most egregious elements in the 2018 proposal, but it is still riddled with errors and biases, and repeats preposterous talking points that the cleaner and more efficient cars required by the Obama administration standards would have increased consumer costs and safety risks.  

The rule will certainly be challenged in court and it will be up to a judge to determine whether the Trump administration can single-handedly roll back a commonsense and successful regulation without any defensible rationale.

If this and other climate rollbacks are allowed to stand, the tragic upshot will be untold human suffering for our children, grandchildren and billions around the globe as climate change accelerates.

Jeff Alson retired in 2018 after 40 years as a senior engineer and policy adviser at EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality. He spent the final 10 years of his career designing and implementing the Obama Clean Car Standards.