Trump Admin Prepares to Relax Lethal Fuel Economy Standards for New Cars

March 31, 2018 Updated: September 27, 2018

The Trump administration is set to relax a set of decades-old fuel efficiency rules for new vehicles that proved to be fatal by forcing auto manufacturers to make lighter, less crash-worthy cars.

The regulations were tightened under President Barack Obama despite a Harvard-Brookings study showing that the fuel efficiency goals caused a 14 to 27 percent increase in traffic deaths due to car downsizing. In 1996 alone, the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards caused an estimated 2,700 to 4,700 deaths, according to the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI).

The Environmental Protection Agency sent a 16-page draft plan for relaxing the standards to the White House for approval, a spokeswoman confirmed to The New York Times. Scott Pruitt, the head of the agency, is expected to frame the change as a way to eliminate regulatory burdens for car makers, which would make trucks, vans, and SUVs more affordable to buyers, the Times reported.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt attends during a summit of Environment ministers from the G7 group of industrialized nations in Bologna, Italy, June 11, 2017. (Max Rossi/Reuters)

Under Obama, three disparate sets of fuel efficiency rules were harmonized and tightened to match those already in place in California. The California Air Resources Board has already warned that should the Trump administration relax the rules, it would lead an effort by 14 states to impose their own, tighter, local regulations.

California received a federal waiver under the 1970 Clean Air Act, enabling it to impose its own fuel efficiency standards. The states that follow its lead, including New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, don’t have such waivers.

“California is not the arbiter of these issues,” Pruitt told Bloomberg TV earlier this month.

A coalition of free market groups, including the CEI, which is often at odds with Trump over trade issues, urged Pruitt to take on California.

“The federal Energy Policy and Conservation Act specifically prohibits states from adopting or enforcing fuel economy laws or regulations,” said CEI senior fellow Marlo Lewis. “Fuel economy mandates restrict consumer choice, add thousands of dollars to the cost of new vehicles, and limit vehicle safety.”

The original intent of the fuel efficiency standards was to reduce oil consumption at a time when the United States was heavily dependent on foreign oil. That is no longer the case as the country is on track to become a net energy exporter by 2026, according to a study by the Energy Information Administration (pdf), Time reported.

Meanwhile, the standards have a marginal impact on reducing carbon emissions, the rationale Obama used for tightening them. A 2017 policy brief by the Reason Foundation showed that CAFE standards would contribute to a mere 1 percent of total carbon emissions reduction.

“Even if you worry about global warming, fuel efficiency standards are a stupendously inefficient climate change mitigation strategy,” Marlow said. “Congress should end the reign of bureaucrats and put consumers back in charge of telling automakers what kinds of cars and trucks to produce.”

 

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