The Trump administration Tuesday markedly scaled back Obama-era fuel economy improvements through 2026. It ordered a modest 1.5 percent per year increase in fuel economy through 2026 versus the 5 percent per year increase set by under the Obama administration. That means the US vehicle fleet would average 40.4 mpg in 2026 rather than 46.7 mpg, although government mpg numbers typically include calculations that mean vehicles actually average less.
The factions are at war over whether the savings netted from building simpler cars is offset by higher fuel costs. Clean-air, longer-life groups say the health costs of less-clean air needs to be part of the calculations. Even as the administration says this is a win for business, several automakers plan to continue following the higher-mpg, lower-emissions path and so do a dozen states. Court battles loom.
Dueling Presidents Take to Twitter
The Trump administration pegs this as a pro-business deregulatory action that will save automakers $100 billion in compliance costs. “[The plan] strikes the right balance between environmental considerations, health and safety considerations and economic considerations,” said James Owens, acting head of the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). New EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler said the rule “strikes the right regulatory balance that protects our environment, and sets reasonable targets for the auto industry.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi shot back, “The Trump administration’s anti-science decision to gut fuel standards will unleash massive amounts of pollution into the air at the worst possible time.” Pretty much what you’d expect from both sides.
In announcing the rollback, President Trump pegged the move as a boost for autoworkers and criticized his predecessor and the “failed Obama Emissions Rule.”
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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 31, 2020
For his part, former President Obama linked “climate denial” with “those who denied warnings of a pandemic.” Again, about what you’d expect, with good sound bites all around. Give Obama credit for linking to a nice picture that could be sunset or smog, take your pick.
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. All of us, especially young people, have to demand better of our government at every level and vote this fall. https://t.co/K8Ucu7iVDK
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) March 31, 2020
Which Way Is Better?
The higher-mpg-versus-cheaper-cars calculation is based on many variables. The Trump administration says (claims):
Cars will cost $1,000 less, on average.Fuel consumption over the life of the car (11-12 years is average) will be more than $1,000 extra.Maintenance costs will be less, enough less to make total cost of ownership be less.Pollution will go up, with 867-923 additional metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted.An additional 2 billion barrels of oil will be consumed. A barrel of oil is 42 gallons and if the administration uses the rule of thumb that the barrel is refined into 19-20 gallons of gasoline, 10-12 gallons of diesel, 4 gallons of jet fuel (almost like diesel), liquified gases, and heavier byproducts all the way down to asphalt, then that would be 40 billion gallons of gasoline, or $80 billion at today’s $2/gallon average price. Give or take a 10-cent-per-gallon surcharge for paying by credit card.Safety will increase because more people will buy new cars that are safer (and jettison older, less safe cars since they cost $1,000 less than expected) and because fuel costs are higher than expected, the average driver will drive fewer miles, which is safer still. They say.
These numbers will have to be examined by scientists and politicians to see how closely they relate to reality as the various sides see it. Health researchers will want to weigh in on the costs of more CO2 in the air. (Carbon dioxide is a proxy for fuel consumption and goes up in direct proportion to how much hydrocarbon fuel is burned.)
Unhappy Environmentalists? Of Course
Environmentalists and EV fanatics are outraged. (Surprise.) One of the most impassioned early-innings rants is “Hey, EPA Head Andrew Wheeler: You’re an Idiot and a Liar” in Elektrek (it’s an opinion piece, just FYI). One of writer Jameson Dow’s proof points is that EPA administrator Wheeler describes “corporate average fuel economy” in print as CAFÉ with an accent mark, and while “it’s pronounced as ‘café,’ like the French word for coffee … it’s just an acronym. As such, it is not written with an accent over the ‘E.’” (More seriously, the piece takes issue with the idea that even with more CO2 there’ll be less total pollution and that lives will be saved.)
Mother Jones weighed in to note that “the reversal means a total 18,500 premature deaths, 250,000 more asthma attacks, 350,000 other respiratory problems, and a total $190 billion health costs between now and 2050, according to an Environmental Defense Fund analysis.” (A longer period than the life of cars built 2021-2026.)
That’s by no means the last salvos to be fired. It will also be a likely campaign issue in the 2020 presidential race: fully employed workers in “good-paying jobs” versus sparkling clean skies. In real life, it’s more complicated. Consider the fully employed autoworker with a child who has asthma made worse by smog.
Some Automakers Tell Trump, ‘Count Me Out’
While the president says automakers should be happy campers with this move, that’s not the case universally. In the fall of 2019, four automakers – BMW, Ford, Honda, and VW (with more than a dozen brands among the companies) committed to following California’s lead on setting tougher standards for cleaner air. This came as President Trump sought to revoke California’s right to set its own air quality standards.
California, since 1970’s Clean Air Act, has had the option to follow EPA standards or, because of California’s unique status (millions of cars and the LA Basin that traps pollution), set its own tougher rules. The law also allowed other states to follow California’s rules and 12 other states currently do, with Colorado slated to do so in 2022. (They must use EPA or California rules; they can’t set their own.)
Trump’s move to revoke California’s status will also be challenged in court, because, at one level, it’s the question of whether an executive order of the president can undo an act of Congress. But it may also include the issue of whether California has the right to regulate CO2 emissions, because when a car is allowed to emit 10 percent less CO2, it’s effectively telling automakers to raise fuel economy by about 10 percent.
The administration initially investigated the BMW-Ford-Honda-VW alliance to see if their joint actions on behalf of cleaner California air violated anti-trust law. In February the Justice Department ended the investigation, either because the optics looked bad or because the feds didn’t believe they could make their case. Ford is “committed to meeting emission reductions consistent with the California framework,” the company said in a statement Tuesday.
The automakers may want to follow California clean-air rules because it makes them look better on the world stage, because they still have to engineer cleaner cars for Europe especially, and because they know a rule undone by the current president could be undone once more by a change of leadership at the start of 2021.
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