Overnight Energy & Environment

Overnight Energy: Trump rolls back Obama-era fuel efficiency standards | Controversial Keystone XL construction to proceed | Pressure mounts to close national parks amid pandemic

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HAPPY TUESDAY! Welcome to Overnight Energy, The Hill’s roundup of the latest energy and environment news. Please send tips and comments to Rebecca Beitsch at rbeitsch@thehill.com. Follow her on Twitter: @rebeccabeitsch. Reach Rachel Frazin at rfrazin@thehill.com or follow her on Twitter: @RachelFrazin.


FUELING CONTROVERSY:The Trump administration on Tuesday rolled back an Obama-era law that pushes automakers to produce more fuel efficient vehicles, severely limiting a rule designed to decrease pollution from transportation in the face of climate change.

The new rule cuts the year-over-year improvements expected from the auto industry, slashing standards that require automakers to produce fleets that average nearly 55 mpg by 2025. Instead, the Trump rule would bring that number down to about 40 mpg by 2026, bringing mileage below what automakers have said is possible for them to achieve.

The Trump administration has argued that cutting Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards will allow automakers to produce cheaper cars, something they say will save 3,300 lives as lower prices spur consumers to upgrade to new vehicles with better safety features that guzzle less gas than older models.

“This rule reflects the Department’s No. 1 priority — safety — by making newer, safer, cleaner vehicles more accessible for Americans who are, on average, driving 12-year-old cars. By making newer, safer, and cleaner vehicles more accessible for American families, more lives will be saved and more jobs will be created,” Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao said in a statement announcing the rule.

Questions about the rule: The rule has been mired by doubts, though, that it will actually save lives.

Earlier government analysis found that while 600 to 700 Americans might be saved by better safety features, nearly 1,000 might die prematurely given the increase in smog and air pollution from vehicle emissions, according to documents obtained by Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.).

And even with historically low gas prices, consumers are expected to pay more at the pump. An analysis from Consumer Reports found U.S. drivers would spend $300 billion more on gas over the lifetime of the vehicles because of the decrease in fuel efficiency. 

The increased cost to consumers holds true even if gas falls to $1.50 per gallon, as prices are expected to rebound by the time frame most of the new vehicles would be produced.

“Unemployment claims skyrocketed to more than 3 million last week, so millions of Americans are now going without a paycheck, and our nation is at risk of a recession because of the COVID crisis,” David Friedman, vice president for advocacy with Consumer Reports said on a call with reporters, referring to the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

“So it’s absolutely stunning the administration would finalize a plan that will cost drivers more money at the pump for years to come. Consumers, workers, small business owners are the engine of America’s economy. And the last thing they need is to get stuck spending more on gas,” he said.

Experts say the economic blow could also hit manufacturers themselves, with global buyers steering clear of American-made vehicles that lag behind their competitors. 

That contrasts with the brighter picture from the Trump administration, which believes 2.7 million more Americans will buy vehicles because of an estimated $1,400 average reduction in vehicle prices.

The Trump rule requires 1.5 percent year over year improvements in mileage, compared to 5 percent under Obama. The auto industry, however, has said it could improve fuel efficiency by 2.4 percent each year even without regulation.

But the issue is hardly just a financial one. Transportation is now the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the nation, according to research by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with pollution from cars and trucks outpacing that of electricity production as utilities move away from coal. 

Read more on the new regulation here


The changes met fierce opposition from environmentalists, public health advocates and Democrats…

Already, environmental groups have vowed to challenge a rule they see as one of the major climate efforts of the previous administration.  

“The Trump administration is once again putting oil industry profits ahead of the American people. Weakening clean car standards will dramatically increase air pollution and harm public health,” Earthjustice California staff attorney Paul Cort said in a statement.

“We’ll see the Trump administration in court,” he added. 

The American Lung Association also raised concerns about the effect the changes could have on the health of vulnerable populations. 

“Cleaner, more efficient vehicles and electric vehicles are key to safeguarding our most vulnerable, including children, older adults and people living with chronic diseases, who will suffer the impacts of climate change the most,” said the association’s president and CEO, Harold P. Wimmer, in a statement. 

Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) said that the changes would spur less innovation and make the U.S. less competitive in the global marketplace. 

“Around the world, countries are setting aggressive standards,” Dingell said in a call with reporters. “We have to stay at the forefront of innovation technology that’s going to help us transition to the next generation of more fuel-efficient vehicles.”


Even Former President Obama himself weighed in…

“We’ve seen all too terribly the consequences of those who denied warnings of a pandemic. We can’t afford any more consequences of climate denial,” Obama tweeted. “All of us, especially young people, have to demand better of our government at every level and vote this fall.


But Republicans praised the move…

“The old rule would limit consumer choice and increase the cost of purchasing a vehicle. Washington must consider what is best for the whole country. The government shouldn’t make rules that work in cities but not in rural communities,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) said in a statement.

Similarly, in a joint statement, Reps. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), John Shimkus (R-Ill.) and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) praised the rule as striking “the right balance between reducing harmful greenhouse gas emissions and lowering the cost of new vehicles for consumers.”

And Trump himself defended his administration, tweeting: “My Administration is helping U.S. auto workers by replacing the failed Obama Emissions Rule. Impossible to satisfy its Green New Deal Standard; Lots of unnecessary and expensive penalties to car buyers!” 

Read more on reactions from Democrats and Republicans, Obama and Trump


Meanwhile, California has a plan of its own:

California announced it would sign a deal with yet another automaker to produce cars meeting stricter standards.    

California Air Resources Board Chairwoman Mary Nichols said the state is finalizing an agreement with Volvo, joining four other automakers that have pledged to produce vehicles that could average 50 mpg by 2026.

“Volvo has notified us that they intend to deliver. We’re in the final stages of writing that agreement,” Nichols said.

The administration’s efforts have been heartily fought by California, which for decades has relied on a federal waiver to craft tougher emissions standards that have in turn been adopted by more than a dozen other states.

President Trump revoked that waiver in September, prompting a swift lawsuit from the state.

But while that case plays out in court, California has worked on getting automakers to sign agreements to create more fuel-efficient vehicles that will help the state meet its clean air goals.

Volvo’s agreement would join those signed by Honda, Volkswagen, Ford and BMW of North America.

Read more on the deal here.


COMING DOWN THE PIPELINE: Construction of the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline will proceed, the company behind the project said Tuesday, even as it faces opposition from native tribes and environmental groups. 

TC Energy spokesman Terry Cunha told The Hill in an email that pre-construction activities have been ongoing for several weeks and that the company expects to begin building the pipeline this spring. 

The company said in a separate statement that it expects the pipeline, which will stretch 1,210 miles from the town of Hardisty, in Alberta, Canada, to Steele City, Neb., to begin operating in 2023.

That statement also announced that Alberta’s government will be investing $1.1 billion in the project. 

Green groups criticized Tuesday’s announcement. 

“This is a shameful new low,” Catherine Collentine, associate director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign, said in a statement. “By barreling forward with construction during a global pandemic, TC Energy is putting already vulnerable communities at even greater risk.”

Read more on the pipeline here


PARK IT: Democrats and parks advocates are putting pressure on the Trump administration to close national parks amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. 

Several have sent letters to the Trump administration on Tuesday urging for the parks to be closed as populations flock to national parks throughout the country for relief amid “stay-home-orders” to stem the spread of the pandemic.

As a result, advocates and health experts have expressed concern that the influx of visitors will put the staff and the visitors themselves at risk for contracting the coronavirus. 

There has also been internal pressure for closure at the Grand Canyon, where one resident was recently diagnosed with COVID-19.

Some national parks have closed, and the National Park Service (NPS) told The Hill in a statement last week that decisions about whether to close parks were “being made on a park-by-park basis by the respective superintendent, using the most current guidance from state and local health authorities, in support of the CDC’s effort to promote social distancing to slow the spread of the coronavirus.”

Read more on the pressure to close the park system here


MAILBAG: “This suspension of enforcement during the ongoing COVID-19 health crisis is irresponsible and neglects the Agency’s core mission to protect public health,” lawmakers in the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition (SEEC) wrote in a letter to the EPA about plans to suspend pollution enforcement during the coronavirus pandemic.



Ex-wildlife chief: Trump rule could kill billions of birds, the Associated Press reports.

Coastal gas plant will shut down by 2023 as fossil fuels dry up in California, The Los Angeles Times reports.

Detroit to install temporary dams to prevent flooding from rising water levels, the Associated Press reports. 


ICYMI: News from Tuesday (and Monday night)…

Grand Canyon remains open while employees, local officials push for its closure

Analysis predicts major cuts to oil demand, production amid pandemic

Up against the border wall

Trump administration rolls back Obama-era fuel efficiency standards

Obama urges voters to ‘demand better‘ after Trump rolls back fuel standards

Critics blast Trump mileage rollback, citing environment and health concerns

Controversial Keystone XL pipeline construction to proceed

California eyes fuel efficiency deal with Volvo as Trump rolls back mileage standards

House Democrats blast EPA as agency suspends monitoring amid coronavirus

Pressure mounts for national parks closure amid coronavirus

Trump defends fuel efficiency rollback as ‘helping US autoworkers

Tags Cathy McMorris Rodgers Debbie Dingell Donald Trump Elaine Chao Greg Walden John Barrasso John Shimkus Tom Carper

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