In August 2018, President Donald Trump called for the replacement of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, which identify mile-per-gallon targets for vehicles by 2025, with the Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient Vehicle (SAFE) rules.

Policy Summary:

In August 2018, President Donald Trump called for the replacement of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, which identify mile-per-gallon targets for vehicles by 2025, with the Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient Vehicle (SAFE) rules. Meant to limit and improve automobile emissions through the requirement of meeting a minimum of 54.5 miles-per-gallon by 2025, CAFE is a cornerstone of mitigating the transportation sector’s impact upon the environment. Through this action, the Trump administration has once again displayed its commitment to rolling back key environmental policies and betrayed its true bedfellows: corporate interests.

CAFE standards were first created in 1975 following the Arab oil embargo. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was tasked by Congress to create mile-per-gallon targets, with the Environmental Protection Agency joining the effort in 2007 due to its charge of regulating vehicle emissions. The CAFE 2025 mile-per-gallon objective was a hard-fought settlement arranged by the Obama administration with the American auto industry. Each vehicle was given a fuel economy target decided by its size and class, and monetary fines are applied if a manufacturer does not meet these benchmarks. However, the concession was made with the auto industry that the average target across all cars sold in a respective fleet was more important than the individual vehicle target. This allows manufacturers to still sell inefficient vehicles by producing fuel-efficient cars in conjunction that outstrip their given emission goals. CAFE is also a credit system in that auto firms can amass credits if they surpass standards, with it being permissible for these credits to be used in the future or given to past vehicles. In addition, credits can be relocated to other fleets or exchanged with fellow manufacturers. With such flexibility, a company can underperform on CAFE targets and still meet standards with the application of past credits or credit trades from others in the auto industry.

The Trump administration is arguing against the findings of a 2016 EPA review of CAFE standards for model years 2022 – 2025, which kept said targets and claimed that the auto industry had reasonable options for fulfillment. Trump claims that the standards are throttling the auto industry, keeping manufacturers out of the U.S., and therefore stifling economic growth. He and the former and current heads of the EPA, Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler respectively, have unveiled the SAFE rules as a replacement for CAFE standards. SAFE applies to model years 2021 – 2026 and would hold mile-per-gallon standards at 2021 CAFE levels. SAFE also annuls California’s Clean Air Act waiver to set its own emission standards and would force the state and thirteen others that followed its lead to conform to federal emission levels. Although SAFE was anticipated to be signed by Trump sometime around March 2019, the standards have yet to be put into place and it is unclear of when and if they will come to pass.


Trump’s call for the elimination of CAFE standards is obvious kowtowing to auto industry interests. Car producers have decried the targets for years, threatening rising vehicle prices due to the supposed cost of production. Mark Fields, the CEO of Ford, even told Trump that CAFE standards could be met, but at the loss of 1 million U.S. automotive jobs. They also posit that the 2016 EPA review was rushed and that due to lower gas prices, Americans are moving away from fuel-efficient cars. However, instituting SAFE rules would do little but increase air pollution, further contribute to anthropogenic climate change, and pad the pockets of auto companies.

Under SAFE standards, manufacturers pursuing higher profit margins will naturally produce more trucks and SUVS, which have far higher price-tags than fuel-efficient cars. This is only a short-term gain concentrated in the hands of the auto industry. CAFE standards benefit both Americans and the economy. When people spend less money on gas, they have more money to spend on goods that are not provided by foreign oil powers, increasing domestic economic growth. CAFE also makes the U.S. auto industry more competitive with foreign producers, which are increasingly making inroads into fuel-efficient, electric, subcompact, and hybrid car production. If the U.S. auto industry thrusts all of its weight behind less fuel-efficient vehicles, it will hamstring itself in pursuit of short-term profits, as automobile trends are already drifting towards higher fuel-efficiency and will no doubt accelerate as the effects of climate change snowball further.

Freezing mile-per-gallon standards at 2021 CAFE levels also increases air pollution and furthers the impact of anthropogenic climate change. We must make headway against greenhouse gas emission from the transportation sector, and siding with corporate interests that desire short-term economic gain over long-term environmental sustainability is like shooting ourselves in the foot. Air pollution is a serious health detriment to the domestic U.S. population, along with the rest of the planet, as air currents connect us all no matter where we live. In addition, emissions are only accelerating and further adding to the issue of climate change. Although the Trump administration may encourage an ignoring of and belittling of climate science, we must recognize the falsities being fed to us and work towards collective action to resist short-sighted policies such as the proposed SAFE standards.

Photo by Sara Farshchi

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