In 2012, the Obama administration passed a climate policy requiring automobile manufacturers to reduce their vehicles’ CO2 emissions by 5% each year through 2026. This would have meant that all new passenger vehicles and light trucks would have a fuel economy of around 54 mpg by the 2025 model year. In late March, just as we are beginning to see skies clear up as a result of stay-at-home orders during the covid-19 pandemic, the Trump administration rolled back this Obama policy by finalizing a new rule requiring the auto industry to reduce carbon emissions by only 1.5% annually through 2026. The White House has received quite a bit of criticism for this rollback, even from the EPA’s own scientific advisory board, who feel that “the weakened standards will lead to dirtier air and cost consumers at the gas pump long-term” . Even after the first proposal for this policy change, advisors had stated that “there are significant weaknesses in the scientific analysis”  to justify the rationale and policy change. Nonetheless, the White House claims that this move will save consumers money by making new vehicles more affordable and will thus increase safety on the road by encouraging consumers to buy newer and thus safer cars. On top of that, the administration claims this is simply a response to the demand for more SUVs and pickup trucks that tend to be less fuel efficient.

Back in 2018, the EPA had stated that the standards set by the Obama administration were “not appropriate and should be revised” (Uria). And now, with the finalizing of the new Trump policy, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler calls it a “correction” to an Obama-era climate policy that was too costly for the auto industry to comply with. Wheeler states that “Our final rule … strikes the right regulatory balance that protects our environment, and sets reasonable targets for the auto industry” . Elaine L. Chao, US Secretary of Transportation (and wife of Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel) said of the new policy, “By making newer, safer and cleaner vehicles more accessible for American families, more lives will be saved and more jobs will be created” (Uria). President of the American Energy Alliance, Thomas Pyle has also praised the new policy, saying that the standards set by the Obama administration were “impossible to achieve without dramatically altering the automobile market or making the cost of vehicles out of reach for most American families. This new … rule will make cars more affordable for consumers at a time when they need it most” .

Despite the praise from within the White House for the new policy, most analysts are not convinced. Regarding claims that the new rule will make consumers more safe by making new cars more affordable, US Senator and the democratic leader on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Tom Carper argues that the EPA’s “own analysis finds there would be even more premature deaths from increased air pollution” . Compared to models based off of the Obama-era standards, the new policy “will lead to nearly a billion additional metric tons of climate warming CO2 in the atmosphere” . Senator Carper also raises timely health concerns in regards to air quality, stating that “This rule will lead to dirtier air at a time when our country is working around the clock to respond to a respiratory pandemic whose effects may be exacerbated by air pollution” .

Not only will this policy create more air pollution, but critics are also skeptical that it will actually save the American people money. Environmental law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, Ann Carlson says that “More fuel efficient cars are cheaper for consumers over the long run” . With the implementation of the new policy, “consumers will end up losing money by buying about 80 billion more gallons of gas” as a result of less fuel efficient vehicles. Even new projections from Consumer Report show that “each vehicle sold under the Trump rule will cost its owner on average $2,100 more, even if gas prices continue to fall,” according to Consumer Report’s vice president of advocacy, David Friedman . Not only that, the government’s own analysis “shows that American car companies could experience a loss of thousands of jobs by making dirtier cars that would be locked out of many overseas markets” .

The justifications for the emissions standards roll-back don’t seem to be particularly accurate or well supported, and as Richard Revesz of the Institute for Policy Integrity and dean emeritus at New York University School of Law puts it, “The rollback of the vehicle emissions standards is based on analysis that is shoddy even by the shockingly unprofessional standards of Trump-era deregulation” . Antonio Bento, professor of public policy and economics at the University of Southern California criticizes the analytical models for the new policy, saying “There’s nothing I can say to potentially defend how some of these assumptions got put in what is already a very messy model” . Regardless of the criticism, the new rule has been finalized. However, states like California and Colorado and environmental and health activist groups are expected to fight the legislation in court, and the debate of states’ rights to set their own auto emissions standards could likely reach the Supreme Court. The Editorial Board at the Los Angeles Times puts it well when they write, “The role of the federal government is not to blindly follow the market off a cliff; in the era of climate change, the government must set policies and adopt regulations that push industries to develop products that are better, safer and healthier for the planet”.

Resistance Resources

The Institute for Policy Integrity

  • A non-partisan think tank dedicated to improving the quality of governmental decision making. Producing original scholarly research in the fields of economics, law, and regulatory policy. Advocating for reform before courts, legislatures, and executive agencies. https://policyintegrity.org/

Safe Climate Campaign

  • A Washington-based consumer advocacy group, the Safe Climate Campaign fights global warming by working for big, specific measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. http://safeclimatecampaign.org/

California Air Resources Board

  • Protecting the public from the harmful effects of air pollution and developing programs and actions to fight climate change. From requirements for clean cars and fuels to adopting innovative solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, California has pioneered a range of effective approaches that have set the standard for effective air and climate programs for the nation, and the world. https://ww2.arb.ca.gov/homepage

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