The Trump administration has formally made good on its threat to weaken federal fuel efficiency standards for U.S. passenger vehicles, the latest gambit in Trump’s sordid mission to dismantle the environmental legacy of his predecessor. This attempt to truncate the existing standards, which call for a gradual strengthening of minimum miles-per-gallon targets for new cars and light trucks until 2026, has already been labeled by the Washington Post as “one of the biggest regulatory rollbacks of the Trump presidency.
The plan in existence now, proposed by President Obama six years ago, would have culminated in 2026 with the passenger cars and trucks on America’s roads getting close to 50 miles per gallon, on average. Trump’s rollback, however, would freeze targets at their 2020 levels, lowering that average to just 35 mpg. In trying to justify the changes, the Trump White House has cited dubious studies that link better fuel efficiency to an increase in deadly vehicular accidents; most reputable experts are highly skeptical of this link.
There’s a big hitch in Trump’s plan, though: California. When Congress passed the Clean Air Act of 1970, it granted the state a waiver that effectively let it chart its own course on emissions policy. California was allowed to deviate from national air quality standards so long as the state’s standards were at least as strict as the federal government’s. In the midst of addressing its notorious smog problem at the time, California took this waiver and ran with it, instituting and continually strengthening rules for tailpipe emissions as part of a decades-long effort to improve its air quality. Nearly half a century later, that effort has become one of the antipollution movement’s great success stories, leading to cleaner air in the Golden State, fewer carbon emissions, and lower bills at the gas pump.
One in eight Americans lives in California, the country’s most populous state. That alone would give the state’s emissions rules a major impact on the way automakers approach fuel efficiency, since Californians make up such a large segment of the market for new cars. But there’s more to the state’s sphere of influence. Though the waiver was originally granted only to California, other states have been allowed to follow suit and establish their own stricter-than-federal standards for tailpipe emissions. And so far, a dozen more states and the District of Columbia have done just that. At some point the auto industry realized that it couldn’t afford to make two sets of cars: one for California and the states following its lead, and another for the rest of America. So the industry stepped up its technology game, working over the years to make all of its cars cleaner and more efficient.
When Obama announced that new national standards would take effect in 2012, it was generally understood that there was no going backward now; that automakers could, and would, continue to make cars that maximized fuel efficiency, reduced air pollution, and saved drivers money at the pump.
That’s where we were—until yesterday morning. That’s when the Trump administration, as it so often does, aggressively challenged the notion that we can never go backward. In addition to proposing a rollback of our national fuel-efficiency standards, officials made clear that they would seek to rescind the waiver enjoyed by California and other like-minded states. In short, Trump is now demanding a new, single, nationwide standard for fuel efficiency—one that’s weaker, more polluting, and more expensive for consumers than what’s already in place in a wide swath of America.
Interestingly, the automotive industry isn’t throwing its support behind the administration’s plan. Why? Because carmakers know that the law is on California’s side and that any attempt to revoke the state’s ability to set its own tailpipe-emissions rules will be met with a vigorous and protracted legal battle. Carmakers crave the stability that comes with steady progress—which the current system of standards very much provides, and which rewarded the automobile industry with record sales last year. In fact, the implementation of efficiency technologies in car production accounts for nearly 300,000 U.S. manufacturing jobs across the country, which are 300,000 reasons why auto suppliers have also made it quite clear that they’re against the rollbacks.
But honestly, any American who drives—or breathes—should oppose the administration’s actions. As Luke Tonachel, who directs NRDC’s clean vehicles and fuels work, observed after Trump’s announcement, freezing national standards after 2020 would end up costing Americans an additional $36 billion at the pump in the year 2030 alone. That same year would see us going through an extra 250 million barrels of oil that we wouldn’t have needed had the old standards remained in place—leading directly to 120 million extra metric tons of carbon pollution entering the atmosphere.
The administration’s stated reasons for the rollback are so thin as to be accidentally transparent. The White House probably isn’t that concerned about public safety. It’s likely concerned, perversely, with nothing more than nullifying the record of President Obama at any and all costs, including the costs—physical, financial, and climatological—borne by hundreds of millions of Americans as we make our way uneasily through the 21st century.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
David Doniger, senior strategic director of the Climate & Clean Energy Program, has helped shape federal and global climate-related policies since he joined NRDC in 1978.
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