Auto Industry Attacks Clean Car and Fuel Economy Standards

There they go again. Automakers are once more on the attack, attempting to weaken the clean car and fuel economy standards that are protecting our health, planet and pocketbooks, that they agreed to just five years ago. If successful, their efforts will take our nation backward, adding at least 155 million tons more of carbon pollution to the atmosphere, and consuming 350 million more barrels of oil, and costing consumers an additional $34 billion at the pump. But their mostly quiet efforts to roll back vehicle standards is a risky strategy: The American public, who also happens to be their customers, strongly supports strong standards that improve vehicle gas mileage.

Here’s are the industry’s current attacks:

1. Convincing the Trump Administration to re-open the 2025 standards to regulatory review: After hearing automaker CEO complaints and erroneous job loss claims, President Trump went to Detroit in March to announce that he would reconsider the Obama EPA’s earlier determination—based on an exhaustive “midterm evaluation” technical analysis with the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and California Air Resources Board—that the standards through 2025 could be stronger, but keeping them in place was appropriate for industry planning certainty. Changes to the car standards haven’t been proposed yet by the Trump Administration but we can be sure Trump’s team, led by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, will try their best to cripple the clean vehicle safeguards just as they are doing with climate, clean air, and clean water protections.  

2. Legislative assault in Congress: Automakers’ hard push on Capitol Hill for changes in the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) rules has resulted in a bill sponsored by Senator Blunt (S.1273). NRDC strongly opposes this reckless rollback bill.

The bill would relax fuel economy standards by giving automakers unwarranted program credits that would allow them to avoid adding fuel-saving technology. The significant CAFE weakening would then be leveraged to weaken the EPA GHG standards under the direction of  EPA Administrator Pruitt—a loud skeptic on the need to regulate carbon pollution. Further, Pruitt or Congress might seek to revoke California’s authority to enforce its own standards once automakers start complaining that they should be aligned with the new, weaker federal rules. 

California Governor Brown railed against the bill because it threatens to up-end the hard-fought effort in 2011 to bring federal standards in-line with those in California and the dozen states that have also adopted the Golden State’s rules.

3. Setting the stage for Trump Administration-controlled agencies to undermine the rules: Automakers have petitioned NHTSA and EPA for a series of changes that would bulk up credits and allow manufacturers to avoid applying clean vehicle and fuel-saving technologies. Among its many requests, the automakers are seeking retroactive credits for technologies that NHTSA explicitly excluded from the standards when they were originally set. If the agencies fully grant the petition, a likely outcome is that automakers could shift greater sales toward light-duty trucks without making them nearly as fuel efficient as the original standard intended.

4. Asking for lax enforcement of the full penalties for violating legal limits: Automakers are even bold enough to ask for leniency when their own poor planning causes them to violate the standards, even if those standards are weaker. Incredibly, the Trump Administration is sympathetic and recently announced that it would reconsider fine increases required by law.

In 2015, Congress passed a law requiring all government agencies to adjust penalties for noncompliance to keep up with inflation. NHTSA proposed to raise the current CAFE fine originally set in 1975 of $5.50 (for every 0.1 mile per gallon a fleet on average is in violation multiplied by the number of vehicles sold that year) to $14. Automakers cried wolf and are now hoping to stop the adjustment, creating a boon for foreign luxury car manufacturers like Land Rover, Jaguar and Porsche, which have historically paid the fines instead of sufficiently improving fuel economy.

Of course, these companies have another option, too; they could buy CAFE credits from companies that are exceeding the standards and making vehicles in the U.S., like Tesla and many others. That would help deliver cleaner air, more fuel savings and boost American jobs!

American’s want cleaner, more fuel-efficient vehicles

Surveys of Americans consistently show strong support for continuing to improve fuel efficiency. Consumer Reports’ most recent national survey found that “nearly 9 in 10 consumers agree that automakers should continue to improve the fuel efficiency for all vehicles.” Even the residents of major automobile and parts manufacturing states Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee and Missouri strongly support keeping the current 2025 standards in place.

This shouldn’t be surprising. Clearly, strong standards are good for consumers because they result in vehicles that are cheaper to own and cost less to fuel up. Strong standards are also good for auto industry jobs. More than 288,000 American workers are building components to make vehicles cleaner and more fuel-efficient. Weakening the standards stifles innovation and puts those jobs at risk.

Automakers are on the wrong side of consumers, public health, the planet and workers with their attacks on the standards and attempts to align with the Trump Administration that disregards public safeguards. NRDC is fighting hard to stop these dangerous rollbacks and we could use your help. Click here to raise your voice against the assault on clean cars.