Congress Should Lift the Hood on Faulty Clean Cars Rollback

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Leaders in Congress are again raising their concerns about the Trump administration’s plan to rollback common-sense clean car and fuel economy standards. And for good reasons—consumers, workers and all those that depend on clean air and a stable climate will suffer.

On Thursday the House Energy and Commerce Committee will hear testimony from the federal and state agency heads charged with setting emissions and fuel economy standards for new passenger vehicles. The Trump administration has proposed an unjustified and faulty rollback of existing standards, a move that would lead to more dangerous carbon emissions. The states, led by California, are planning to enforce their existing standards, as they should. Representatives at the hearing should expose the federal agencies’ faulty reasoning and act to protect the states’ authority, our environment and consumers’ pocketbooks. 

The House hearing is scheduled to feature testimony from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Deputy Administrator Heidi King, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Assistant Administrator Bill Wehrum and California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols.

The federal and state regulators don’t see eye-to-eye. Ms. King has led efforts to freeze the fuel economy standards at 2020 levels through 2026, an approach even automakers dismiss as harmful. EPA’s Wehrum has also supported this backward approach. Ms. Nichols has made it clear that her state rejects that approach. If California doesn’t clean up vehicle tailpipe emissions, it could be forced to enact additional regulations, potentially on other sources, to meet federally-mandated clean air standards. Thirteen states following the California standard also share those concerns.

Both EPA and NHTSA have called for revoking state authority to set vehicle pollution standards necessary to address air pollution issues and protect their citizens.   

Even automakers are alarmed. The hearing comes two weeks after 17 automakers sent a letter to the Trump administration pleading for a change in direction, but the Trump administration has refused to follow what the law—passed by Congress—requires.

Members of the House of Representatives should be asking the federal agencies to justify their actions.

Lawmakers should be asking Mr. Wehrum how rolling back the standards is consistent with EPA’s mandate under the Clean Air Act to protect public health and welfare. The existing clean car standards that require new cars in 2025 to emit 42 percent less carbon pollution per mile than their 2012 counterparts comprise the most significant U.S. regulations to combat climate change on the books today. Clearly, reducing carbon pollution that disrupts the climate and causes more health-threatening bad air days is necessary to protect our health and welfare.

NHTSA’s Deputy Administrator King should be pressed on how her agency is fulfilling its mandate under the Energy Independence and Security Act to set maximum feasible fuel economy standards. How is flat-lining or dramatically weakening fuel economy consistent with maximum feasible for U.S. vehicle technology? From 2011-2017, automakers added fuel-saving technologies to improve new passenger cars efficiency by 15% and new light trucks by 12% under the increasing standards. Consumers benefited by saving more than $70.8 billion at the pump.

The rollback also puts thousands of jobs at risk. NHTSA’s own analysis projects a loss of 60,000 automotive jobs from reduced vehicle technology investment. NHTSA is proposing to cut jobs, make consumers pay more and increase our dependence on oil.

Who would benefit from the Trump administration’s proposed rollback? Only the oil industry. The rollback would force consumers to hand an additional $170 billion to oil companies. The more oil we purchase—as gasoline and diesel fuel—the more oil profits can expand. Clearly this is important to the industry. A New York Times investigation in December 2018 revealed a “stealth campaign” led by Marathon Petroleum, the country’s largest refiner, to lobby the Trump administration to roll back the standards.

Strong fuel economy standards reduce demand for oil, which is a globally-priced commodity. Our nation’s strongest economic and energy security against world oil market volatility is to consume less oil. The fuel economy rollback will make us more vulnerable, not less.

House Energy and Commerce Committee member Rep. Doris Matsui introduced the Clean and Efficient Cars Act (H.R. 978) to affirm the existing standards and prevent the rollback. More than sixty of her colleagues are co-sponsoring the bill. 

Congress should continue to do what’s needed to put the brakes on Trump’s clean car rollback. It is bad for Americans, our economy and our planet.

About the Authors

Luke Tonachel

Director, Clean Vehicles and Fuels Group, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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