Trump Administration Reverses Clean Car Standards, Gutting Another Key Climate Policy

The oil industry is the only real winner.

Russell Kord/Alamy Stock Photo

The Trump administration released its gutted clean car and fuel economy standards today—rolling back one of the most significant Obama-era climate policies. “The Trump administration is driving our auto future in reverse,” says NRDC president Rhea Suh.

The long-awaited proposal abandons the annual fuel-efficiency increases central to the former rule, instead freezing clean car and fuel economy targets at model-year 2020 levels through 2026. Perhaps just as controversial: The revised rule aims to prevent California from setting higher standards than the federal government—a significant reversal that will impact the 13 states now following California’s lead, which make up 40 percent of the auto market.

The Trump administration’s decision reverses hard-won coordination among multiple federal and state agencies that culminated in a single set of nationwide standards in 2012—ending decades of inconsistency and uncertainty for automakers. Though some auto companies pushed the administration to weaken the standards, the reversal will likely cause turmoil for the industry and its suppliers, not to mention the loss of technology investments made thus far.

The standards had been designed to save consumers money at the pump and support American jobs, all while aiming to cut carbon pollution in half by 2025 and reduce the nation’s oil consumption by 2.4 million barrels per day by 2030. The standards would also improve public health by cutting dangerous air pollution.

And they had already proved to be effective: By the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s own count, new vehicles sold since model year 2012 (when the standards went into effect) have avoided more than 240 million tons of carbon pollution. Ultimately, vehicles following the Obama-era standards would’ve cut climate-warming pollution by six billion tons. “We need to speed up that progress, not slide backward,” Suh says.

Luke Tonachel, NRDC’s director of clean vehicles and fuels, says, “Only the oil industry benefits from weaker standards. The public gets betrayed with more pollution and higher gasoline bills. Our nation increases its dependence on oil. Innovation by the U.S. auto industry stalls, and carmakers cede automotive technology leadership to other countries and risk American jobs.”

A state coalition, led by California, filed a court challenge earlier this year following the administration’s initial announcement of its intention to freeze the standards. The formal proposal, and specifically its attack on California’s autonomy, will now undoubtedly face a long road of litigation, leaving the auto industry guessing and our efforts against climate change lagging.

“Let’s keep our eyes on the road,” Suh says, “and not let Trump and his dirty deputies run us into the ditch.”

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