Trump Cars Rollback Unjustified, Unprecedented and Dangerous

With this unjustified and unprecedented action, the Trump administration is moving to roll back crucial protections for our air and health, all so it can take more than $170 billion out of the pockets of drivers and give it to Big Oil. With prices at the pump on the rise, the hit to our wallets could be even worse. 

Simply put, the Trump administration’s proposal to roll back clean car and fuel economy standards for model years 2021 through 2026 is unjustified by the data, unprecedented in its attack on states' longstanding authority to set more protective standards, and dangerous to the health of all Americans.

Freezing Standards Means More Pollution and Higher Fuel Costs

Team Trump, led by acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, wants to freeze clean car and fuel economy standards for all passenger vehicles at model year (MY) 2020 levels through MY 2026. In just two years, automakers effectively would be given license to abandon new investments in technology that saves fuel and reduces harmful greenhouse gas emissions.

This proposal represents a troubling retreat from the current standards, which are in place through MY 2025. Freezing the standards after 2020 instead of allowing them to get more stringent every year would cost Americans $36 billion in added fuel bills in 2030 alone. A freeze also means that in 2030, the United States would consume 250 million additional barrels of oil and emit 120 million more metric tons of carbon pollution—an amount equivalent to running 30 coal-fired power plants.

There’s no reason to impose these additional financial and health burdens on American families when automakers have already demonstrated that they can meet strong standards. They achieved record sales while meeting the 2012-2016 standards, which increased fuel economy at an average rate of 3.6 percent per year. And they can meet the existing standards by increasing fuel economy by about 4.5 percent per year. An exhaustive joint analysis by EPA, DOT, and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) in 2016 clearly established that automakers can meet the current standards with existing technologies at a reasonable cost.

In addition to the freeze, EPA and the Transportation Department’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration provided seven additional alternatives for weakening the standards that call for average fleet fuel economy improvements ranging from 0.5 percent to less than 3 percent per year—all far below what we know automakers can achieve. These anemic trajectories all will increase oil consumption and carbon emissions relative to the current standards, putting current and future generations at greater risk of an unstable climate and on-going dependence on volatile international oil markets.

Unjustified Weakening

The administration fails to make a compelling case for weakening—let alone freezing—the current standards. The proposal makes erroneous assumptions about the cost of clean vehicle technologies and makes spurious claims about safety. The proposal attempts to counter years of robust technical analysis that culminated in the joint analysis that EPA, NHTSA, and CARB produced in 2016 and the Obama administration’s 2017 determination that the existing standards are not only achievable at considerable savings to consumers, but could be strengthened.

Below are three examples of unjustified changes EPA and NHTSA made to the original analysis:

  • NHTSA simultaneously increased the assumed incremental cost of meeting the original 2025 clean vehicle standards and underestimated their fuel-savings benefits. NHTSA, the agency that conducted the proposal technical assessment, claims the technology cost will be $1,850 (compared to a 2016 vehicle), which is a $780 jump from the average of the joint agency analysis from just two years ago. NHTSA also claims the original 2025 fuel savings are insufficient to cover that cost. That is simply false. Consumers of new vehicles that meet the existing 2025 standards can expect save nearly $4,000 compared to a new 2016 vehicle. NHTSA ignores the fact that gasoline engine technologies have continued to evolve and costs are coming down faster than anticipated, not going up.
  • The agencies also erroneously project that fuel-saving improvements will drive up costs and reduce sales, leaving less-safe vehicles on the road longer. The record sales auto manufacturers have achieved recently while meeting the existing standards make it clear this notion is baseless. Consumers benefit because fuel savings outweigh the incremental up-front costs. (Interestingly, the Trump administration makes this argument to justify weakening the standards, but it doesn’t consider the effects of slower fleet turnover from its proposed vehicle import tariffs, even though automakers say they will decrease sales.)
  • In 2016, NHTSA found that vehicles could become more efficient under the existing standards while maintaining or improving safety. That finding holds true because the standards are based in vehicle size and discourage manufacturers from complying by selling more small vehicles. Now, the agency is trotting out old, debunked arguments that heavier vehicles are safer. In fact, making the vehicles lighter—especially the largest vehicles like the best-selling Ford F-150 pickup that dropped hundreds of pounds—can actually improve the overall safety of the vehicle fleet, a finding that was supported by a recent a National Academies of Science report.

Unprecedented Attack on State Authority to Set Tougher Standards

The Trump administration is taking a huge legal gamble by attempting to revoke states’ existing authority under the Clean Air Act to set stronger tailpipe pollution standards as needed to protect their citizens. The proposal argues that fuel economy and state emission standards cannot coexist, but this goes against legal precedent, as my colleague Ben Longstreth explains in his blog.

We cannot allow the administration to get away with this unprecedented attack. Should the federal government roll back the current safeguards, it will be more important than ever that states be able to keep or adopt strong standards. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper recognized this when he recently directed his administration to adopt the advanced clean car standards that 13 other states follow in anticipation of the federal rollback.

California has vowed to mount a vigorous legal fight if the Trump administration threatens this longstanding authority. If California takes EPA to court, expect some or all sixteen states that recently challenged the administration’s decision to re-open the existing standards to join what could turn out to be a long, costly legal battle.

Dangerous U-Turn

Today’s clean car and fuel economy standards are the most effective existing federal program to combat climate change and reduce our dependence on dirty oil. Americans overwhelming support this extremely successful program by nearly seven to one.

Rolling back the standards poses a grave–and preventable–danger to our health and environment by increasing air pollution. A rollback is no less dangerous to the U.S. economy because it would stifle innovation and threaten jobs by effectively ceding America’s role as a global leader in automotive technology to China and European nations that already are forging ahead on clean cars. Finally, weak standards hurt consumers by making them pay more at the pump to travel the same distance on a gallon of gas.

Who wins from the Trump clean cars rollback? Just Big Oil. We’ll be fighting to make sure that doesn’t happen, and that this outrageous and dangerous proposal suffers the resounding defeat it so clearly deserves.

Tell the EPA and DOT to stop Trump's attack on clean car standards

About the Authors

Luke Tonachel

Director, Clean Vehicles and Fuels Project, Climate & Clean Energy program

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.