Wheeler’s Staff Shows the Clean Cars Rollback Is a Disaster

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According to two new bombshell articles this week, EPA staff experts had as many concerns about the Trump administration’s rollback of clean car standards as those of us on the outside have.

The understated, factual criticisms of the rollback from the EPA engineers and analysts who have worked on this issue for years undermine EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler’s frequent talking points in favor of the weakened standards.  

Here’s what’s happening: EPA, along with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), has been working since 2017 on a plan to roll back tailpipe emissions and fuel efficiency standards that were set to run through 2025. The existing standards, implemented in 2012, have been a huge success. Automakers achieved record sales while delivering vehicles of all types and sizes that polluted less and went farther on a tank of gas. EPA itself found they have saved drivers a whopping $90 billion in refueling costs while avoiding 475 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

The standards have been the single largest action the federal government has implemented to tackle climate change—while also creating jobs, boosting the economy and saving consumers money.

What’s not to like?

Well, the Trump administration, unfortunately, made repealing the standards a key part of its agenda. It was initially pitched as a way to create jobs. That argument collapsed, so Wheeler has made four main arguments: He says the rollback will improve fuel efficiency, cut pollution, make vehicles more affordable and save lives.

The EPA staff members have shown Wheeler’s arguments to be as shambolic as we had thought.

1. EPA’s rollback will worsen vehicle emissions and fuel efficiency.

Under the Obama-era clean car standards, automakers had agreed to achieve 5% gains in fuel efficiency each year through 2025. Under Wheeler’s plan they must achieve about 1.5% annual in gains. But Wheeler argues that because 1.5% is greater than zero, it will improve vehicle efficiency.

In the memos reported by the Washington Post, the EPA staff said simply, “this is not correct.” And they make the obvious rejoinder: “The action revising the [greenhouse gas] standards will result in increased climate impacts and air pollution emissions compared to the existing standards.”

The law requires that EPA set standards to protect public health and welfare and that NHTSA set “maximum feasible” standards. The rollback fails both requirements.

2. EPA’s rollback will increase the costs of buying and owning a car and damage the economy.

Most people who buy a car plan on driving it. So, the purchase price of the vehicle is only one part of the cost of owning a car. Refueling it adds up. For Wheeler, however, his justification for rolling back standards that cut drivers’ costs at the pump (remember that $90 billion in savings?) is that it will make the sticker price lower. However, EPA’s own analysis found that consumers would save more in fuel costs for the small increase in the sticker price they may face. In fact, inflation-adjusted average new vehicle prices have been basically flat since the early 2000s, even as vehicle efficiency was improving. 

Wheeler tries to ignore this fact, and the more general determination that according to the administration’s own analysis it would on net damage the economy. Officials at the Office of Management and Budget called out the bogus math before the final rule was released, according to documents unearthed by E&E News:

"On their own, the described cost-benefit numbers do not obviously lend themselves to the conclusion that the chosen alternative is preferable," the analysts noted dryly.

The E&E story ads: “The economists were referring to the fact that under a 3% discount rate, the SAFE Vehicles Rule doesn't pass a cost-benefit analysis, and its net costs would exceed its net benefits by $13.1 billion.”

3. The so-called SAFE rule is unsafe for those of us who want to breathe fresh air.

After having failed to pretend that this rollback will create jobs or boost the economy, the Trump administration has focused on one key argument to try and justify its action: that this will save lives. Their proposed rule flunked Econ 101 to come up with a cockamamie justification for safety gains. It made such little sense that it had to drop that in the final rule, but Wheeler came up with a new way to rejigger the data, one that would estimate 685 fewer fatalities in car crashes. That figure is still wrong because it is still based on some spurious sales assumptions. But, importantly, the safety claim also ignores the thousands put at risk of asthma, heart disease and, even, death from air pollution, a risk that research shows is exacerbated by the coronavirus.

Court challenge coming.

We will soon be going to court to challenge this illegal rollback of commonsense standards. It’s been clear to us for a long time that Wheeler’s rollback won’t hold up in court. Now it’s also evident that even those working at the Office of Management and Budget at the White House agree: "The legal justification is lacking," they wrote, according to E&E. "It ... reads very cursory," they added.

Indeed. We will see them in court.