Trump’s Carbon Rollbacks Mean Hell on Earth

Fresno, California, sits in a heavily-polluted area of California’s San Joaquin Valley and so was an appropriate site for the September 24, 2018 hearing about vehicle-related air pollution—except that the federal proposal in question would make air pollution worse, not better.

The federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards are designed to maximize energy efficiency and minimize our reliance on petroleum-based motor vehicle fuel, as required by two federal statutes: the Energy Policy and Conservation Act (EPCA) and the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA). Auto tailpipe emissions are regulated by EPA and California has a waiver, now under attack by the Trump Administration, to set tougher standards than EPA's. The Obama Administration enacted regulations that increase the CAFÉ standards through model year 2021 and that suggest additional increases out to 2025. But the Trump Administration wants not only to roll back those standards, but to adopt new standards that decrease auto mileage requirements compared to existing law. This situation is explained in depth by my NRDC colleagues Luke Tonachel and David Doniger here. The EPA also wants to revoke California’s Clean Air Act ability to regulate tailpipe GHGs; that sorry topic is covered by UCLA Law’s Meredith Hankins here

So EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) set three public hearings to take testimony on the proposed rollbacks: in Fresno, CA; Dearborn, MI; and Pittsburgh, PA. I attended the Fresno hearing and spoke mostly about the agencies’ analysis of the rollback proposal under the National Environmental Protection Act, or NEPA. My colleague Luke Tonachel attended the Dearborn hearing; his written testimony is here

NEPA is our basic national charter for protection of the environment. NEPA requires federal agencies to take a ‘hard look’ at how the choices before them affect the environment, and then to place their data and conclusions before the public. Under NEPA, a federal agency is also required to analyze reasonable alternatives to the proposed action. This alternatives analysis is often referred to as the heart of the environmental impact analysis. The agencies’ NEPA analysis can be found here (look at the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, or DEIS), and falls far short of what the law requires. 

First, a bit of context. The agencies’ DEIS predicts global GHG levels of 789.11 parts per million (ppm) in 2100 if the current standards remain in place. GHG levels at the beginning of the industrial age were around 250 ppm and the current global GHG level is around 407 ppm.  What does this projected huge increase mean?  As I told the agencies at the Fresno hearing, it means a future hellscape in the US with devastating effects to agriculture and to the economy in general, and coastal inundation from feet of rising sea levels.  So you would think that the government would want to make this situation better, right?

Wrong. The agencies propose to make it worse—see Table 5.4.2-2 on page 5-31 of the DEIS. Of the eight alternatives that the agencies propose to the existing rules, every one makes the 2100 GHG levels worse, and the agencies’ preferred alternative (no. 1) is the worst of all.

The DEIS also shows increased emissions of pollutants such as oxides of nitrogen (NOx) from oil refineries under the agencies’ proposal. This is a big issue for environmental justice communities like those in Los Angeles County that are situated near, and in some cases right next to, major oil refineries. And yet, the DEIS essentially blows off any environmental justice analysis, saying that there is no link in the scientific literature between oil refinery emissions and environmental justice communities. A short drive around Los Angeles, Richmond or Bakersfield would quickly disprove that.

Further on the NEPA merits, the DEIS is based on an improperly narrow purpose and need statement in which the agencies ignore the requirements of EPCA and EISA by only considering as alternatives CAFE reductions; fails to consider a reasonable range of alternatives, including alternatives that increase the stringency of the existing standards; is based on faulty, unintelligible and result-oriented modeling which the EPA professional staff tore to shreds here (see Email 5); and fails to take a hard look at direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts such as the other regulatory rollbacks proposed by the Trump Administration.

There is a litigation remedy for a faulty NEPA analysis and, if the current draft is not withdrawn litigation by NRDC and others is sure to follow. But even more importantly, as the federal agencies own GHG predictions make clear, without dramatically reducing the use of fossil fuels in the transportation and other sectors the future of our civilization is in grave doubt.