Energy & Environment

Trump officials eye new attack on car rules

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The Trump administration is preparing to roll back Obama-era automobile efficiency and emissions standards by making the controversial argument that the rules make cars less safe.

The proposal, which is expected to be unveiled by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Transportation Department’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in the coming days, already has consumer and safety advocates ready for a fight.

At issue are clean car standards the Obama administration put in place through the 2026 model year.

{mosads}The EPA is responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions standards, while the NHTSA is responsible for efficiency standards, dubbed Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE), but they are administered as one program.

Information the administration released about the proposal, as well as an internal administration document published earlier this year by a Democratic senator, show that officials plan to argue that the Obama auto standards compromise safety.

They say if the Obama rules are kept in place, that would mean more car crashes and deaths.

Last week, the agencies updated the name of the upcoming proposal in a public White House filing, dubbing it the Safer and Affordable Fuel Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles. The administration is also likely to challenge California’s unique ability to set its own greenhouse gas standards for vehicles.

The entire proposal is under wraps while it undergoes White House review, and officials aren’t revealing any details yet.

But people familiar with the process say officials are likely to make two arguments: that the Obama standards will make cars more expensive, spurring consumers to keep their old, unsafe cars longer, and that increased efficiency will make driving cheaper, leading to more driving and more crashes.

Experts and people who support the Obama rules say those safety arguments don’t add up. They say the Trump administration is merely trying to justify the auto industry’s long-sought goal of relaxing the tough standards.

“There are so many levels of wrong with the administration going in this direction,” said Dave Cooke, senior vehicles analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, which supports the Obama standards.

“The magnitude that I’ve seen in the literature for this stuff is not enough that they should be able to erase the billions of dollars of consumer benefits and millions of metric tons of emissions and all the oil saved and all that stuff,” he added.

The arguments can partly be traced to a decades-long push by conservatives to make the case that CAFE standards are dangerous. Those conservatives say the rules push automakers to make lighter and smaller vehicles, which are comparatively less safe.

The conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute has been one of the most vocal advocates for that position.

“By requiring greater fuel economy than is the natural progression of technology, cars will become smaller and lighter, so people’s choices are restricted to smaller and lighter cars than they might otherwise like to buy,” said Myron Ebell, head of the group’s energy and environment program. “Smaller and lighter is less safe.”

Numerous studies, though, have refuted those claims. A 2009 decision by regulators sought to address those concerns, though. It imposed different standards for different sized vehicles, allowing SUVs to remain large while still improving their efficiency.

The Trump administration is likely to focus on the argument that the Obama rules raise costs for newer cars, keeping older, unsafe cars on the roads longer.

“A lot of people are keeping older cars much longer. Those older cars are not as safe as newer cars because of advances in engineering. And as cars get really old, they tend to become unsafe for all sorts of reasons,” Ebell said.

John German, the United States co-lead at the International Council on Clean Transportation, said federal regulators haven’t considered the degree to which efficiency rules could reduce vehicle sales. But he said it probably doesn’t have a big impact.

“In theory, I would say that it could be legitimate,” German said. “But where I really have a problem is that new vehicle sales are not going to decrease, so it’s just a nonissue.”

Furthermore, he said, it ignores the degree to which consumers value increased efficiency.

Cooke said some research shows the cost of new vehicles is a factor in safety, but not to a large enough degree to make a difference in regulation.

“It’s not of such magnitude that it would have the fatality impacts that they’re talking about,” he said.

Cooke also pointed to what regulators have dubbed the “rebound effect.” The most recent efficiency and emissions rule, written in 2012, assumed that for every percentage point drop in the cost of driving, people would drive one-tenth of a percent more.

German said officials could argue that would result in more injuries and deaths.

“The more people drive, the more accidents there are, the more fatalities and more costs,” he said.

That calculation, however, could ignore the economic benefits of driving more, like employment or shopping.

For now, both supporters and opponents of the rules are bracing for a fight.

Any changes, though, are likely to lead to a long court fight, particularly as California is expected to fight to preserve its tougher emissions rules.

The administration is planning to release the proposal to roll back the standards as soon as this week.

“Clearly, this is a case where the Trump administration is looking to dial back these standards,” said Barry Rabe, public policy professor at the University of Michigan.

Tags car emissions standards Car safety

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