Trump’s Last Havoc on Behalf of Polluters

The administration is leaving office with a reward for automakers who refuse to make more fuel-efficient vehicles. But the list of these last-minute gifts to the administration’s polluter pals is long and growing.

Gerenme/iStock

Like crazy cats left alone over the holidays, the Trump administration is doing damage large and small in its waning days. His team is leaving the equivalent of a toppled Christmas tree, broken ornaments and shredded toilet paper for the Biden administration to clean up. It’s going to require quite the effort to clean up the mess—and make sure the government is once again protecting us from pollution and not protecting polluters.

Consider what Trump’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration did for automakers this month in delaying increased penalties for those that fail to achieve federal fuel efficiency standards. This is separate from the administration’s efforts to roll back clean car standards, but the effect is the same: giving automakers the greenlight to make vehicles that pollute more.

It’s as if the administration both raised the speed limit and lowered the fine for speeding at the same time. Both lead to the same result: drivers going faster. And, in fact, that’s what we’ve seen from automakers. EPA’s latest Automotive Trends Report showed the fuel efficiency fell and tailpipe emissions increased in 2019, the first decline in five years.

The problem with the penalties dates back decades. Congress first set the penalty, in 1975, at $5 for each tenth of a mile per gallon (mpg) a manufacturer falls short of its compliance obligation and bumped it up to $5.50 per tenth of an mpg in 1997. In 2015, Congress passed a law requiring agencies across the federal government to adjust the penalties they assess to account—at least in part—for inflation. In 2016, NHTSA set the new fine at $14 using the legally-required formula for inflation adjustment—but, at the behest of automakers, the Trump administration keeps trying to evade and delay this fine increase.

Letting these automaker polluters off the hook has been something the administration has tried to do from the outset, but, like many of anti-environment efforts, it kept running into trouble in court. In 2017 the Trump administration tried to delay the rules that increased fines on automakers to match the pace of inflation. That delay set up a perverse incentive making it cheaper for auto companies to simply pay a fine rather than meet fuel economy standards.

We, along with other groups and a coalition of state governments, sued.

And in 2018 a federal appeals court panel said the Trump administration had no legal authority for its attempted delay, and the increased fines were in force. NHTSA then tried again: In July 2019, NHTSA issued a new rule, this time attempting to exclude the fuel-efficiency penalty from any inflation adjustment altogether.

Again, we, along with other groups and a coalition of state governments, sued.

Another federal appeals court panel—this one comprised of three Trump-appointed judges—told NHTSA that it lacked the legal authority for its gambit. Again(!), it told NHTSA that the increased penalty is in force.

That should have been the end of it, but instead NHTSA issued a rule last week that would keep the $5.50 fine in place until model year 2022 vehicles.

This is absurd. The Trump administration tried—twice—to ignore the law and give automakers a “Get Out of Jail for 10 Cents” card, but the federal court struck both of those rules down.

So now, NHTSA says that because it went down this unreasonable path contrary to the law, it needs to delay the $14 penalties because automakers were relying on the fact that they wouldn’t face these reasonable penalties. It makes the head spin.

What’s clear to all of America is that the Trump administration is leaving office with the same environmental agenda it has pursued since day one: protecting polluters. In this case it’s automakers who refuse to make more fuel-efficient vehicles. But the list of these last-minute Valentines to the administration’s polluter pals is long and growing.

Just this month we’ve seen these dangerous actions from the administration:

  • EPA issued a rule to exempt some of the nation’s biggest polluters—including producers of oil and gas, chemicals, cement, steel and aluminum—from future Clean Air Act limits on their carbon emissions;
  • The Army Corps of Engineers issued nationwide permits that would give developers, oil drillers, industrial fish farms and others the green light to destroy or pollute streams and wetlands;
  • EPA issued a rule that would censor the peer-reviewed science that the agency could rely upon to set health standards, a regulation opposed by the nation’s largest science groups;
  • EPA's said it planned terminate Obama-era proposed bans for several uses of three toxic chemicals;
  • The administration expedited approvals to lease more than 550,000 acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for energy development;
  • The Department of Energy exempted residential gas furnaces and commercial water heaters from new efficiency standards, a rule that could mean consumers miss out on billions of dollars in savings in the coming years.

All of these actions mean there’s much for the new Biden team to do as they work to protect people, not polluters. We will be doing all we can to ensure they are doing the right thing.

About the Authors

Luke Tonachel

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

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