Trump Administration Seeks New Fuel and Emissions Standards

Trump Administration Seeks New Fuel and Emissions Standards
Heavy traffic clogs the 101 Freeway in Los Angeles, Calif., on Aug. 29, 2014. (Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images)
Kevin Mooney

Automobile consumers stand to benefit from the Trump administration’s proposed reforms of federal fuel and emissions mandates, according to energy-policy analysts and free-market advocacy groups.

Some of the free-market groups that signed off on a coalition letter submitted to President Donald Trump on April 6 in support of the regulatory change have argued that it doesn’t go far enough, while environmental activists claim Trump’s proposal will jeopardize public health and safety.
The American Energy Alliance (AEA), a nonprofit group based in Washington that led the free-market coalition, credited the administration with finalizing a regulatory reform process that began last fall when it ended a waiver process that gave California a special role in setting standards for emissions.

The Clean Air Act, passed in 1970, granted California a waiver originally intended to address concerns unique to California, such as Los Angeles smog.

President Barack Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) granted California a waiver under the Clean Air Act in 2013 that allowed other states to adopt California’s emissions standards. Thirteen states—Oregon, Washington state, Colorado, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maine—have done so, along with the District of Columbia.

The 2013 waiver also allowed California to adopt its own fuel efficiency standards, stricter than the national standards set by the EPA, and for the California standards to compete with the national standards, in effect giving California’s green agenda a kind of national authority.

California has joined a coalition including 22 other states and the cities of Washington, New York, and Los Angeles to file suit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia against the Trump administration challenging its authority to revoke the Obama-era waiver. The suit could potentially head to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Proponents of the regulatory changes who signed off on the coalition letter have argued that federal law preempts state and local regulation of vehicle fuel economy standards. The AEA made this point in a press statement.

“The coalition members agree that the Trump administration’s proposed changes to the Obama-era expansion of the fuel economy mandate are both legally appropriate and economically necessary,” AEA President Tom Pyle told The Epoch Times.

“The Obama-era expansion allowed regulators in California to hijack our system of federalism at the expense of car buyers from coast to coast. American families choose cars, trucks, and SUVs based on their own unique circumstances.

“In a free market, automakers would compete to give us the best combination of features. We don’t want unelected bureaucrats from Sacramento getting the final say over how we get from place to place.”

Officials from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the EPA discussed with reporters in a conference call the newly released Safe Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule that sets Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) and carbon dioxide emissions standards for vehicle model years extending from 2021 to 2026.

Trump’s version of CAFE is an abrupt departure from Obama’s rule, which imposed tighter restrictions and mandates on automobile manufacturers. The SAFE rule increases CAFE and CO2 emissions standards by 1.5 percent each year through model year 2026, compared to the Obama standards introduced in 2012 that would have required 5 percent annual increases.

“Now more than ever, this country needs a sensible national program that strikes the right regulatory balance for the environment, the auto industry, the economy, safety, and most importantly, American families,” Andrew Wheeler, the EPA administer, said during the call. “The final SAFE rule does all of those things by improving the fuel economy, continuing to reduce air pollution—and our pollution will go down under this rule—and [by] making new vehicles more affordable for all Americans.”

Greater Safety

Trump administration selling points for the new SAFE rule include lower costs, resulting in greater safety.

Wheeler and other administration officials taking part in the call cited figures that showed the proposed rule change would lead to a $200 billion reduction in total costs over the lifetime of vehicles through model year 2029 and a $100 billion reduction in regulatory costs.

Wheeler also said the SAFE rule would result in 3,300 fewer crashes, 46,000 fewer hospitalizations after crashes, 397,000 fewer injuries, and 1.8 million fewer vehicles damaged in crashes. A press release from the EPA details these same figures.
James Owens, NHTSA acting administrator, said during the call that the National Center for Statistics and Analysis produced several reports to assess how a vehicle’s model year and its age affect the chances that its occupants might be killed or injured.

These reports found that occupants faced “significantly higher risks of being killed or significantly injured if they were riding in older vehicles,” Owens said.

But because fuel economy standards “come at a cost” and because the average price of a new vehicle is now about $38,000, many families can’t afford a new vehicle and miss out on their safety benefits, Owens said.

He also told members of the press that, contrary to expectations, most people have been buying SUVs and light trucks as opposed to passenger vehicles.

“The average age of vehicles on the road today is at a record high of 12 years,” Wheeler said. “In 1990, the average age was eight years. Either consumers cannot afford the price of new vehicles, or they are not interested in purchasing certain types of new vehicles. Either way, the lack of fleet turnover creates a host of problems, most important of which is passenger safety.”

Wheeler anticipates that consumers will see a $1,400 reduction in the total cost of owning a new vehicle, a $1,000 reduction in the sales price of a new vehicle, and 2.7 million additional new vehicles sold because of this increased affordability.

“All new vehicles will continue to be subject to strict pollution standards of the Clean Air Act and new vehicles will be subject to higher pollution standards than the older vehicles that they replace,” Wheeler said. “The driver, if you will, for the increase in safety is the fact that the final SAFE rule will save consumers money on newer, safer vehicles.”


Environmental advocacy groups aren’t impressed. The Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit headquartered in Tucson, Arizona, views the proposed SAFE rule as a threat to public health.
“The Trump administration’s rollback condemns Americans to choke on smog and suffer more climate pollution from refineries and tailpipes,” Maya Golden-Krasner, a Los Angeles-based attorney with the Center, said in a press release. “It’s shameful that Trump officials pushed this through during a viral pandemic that preys on people with asthma and other health problems linked to dirty air.”

The green group also took aim at Trump’s efforts to prevent California from cutting its own path on fuel efficiency standards.

“The new rule comes in the midst of a strong-arm power play by the White House to deny California’s efforts to curb vehicle emissions,” the release stated. “Last fall, the Center and other groups sued the Trump administration over its attempts to block the state from setting auto emissions standards more protective than the federal government’s; that case is pending.”

Critics of Trump’s regulatory reforms overlook the fact that CAFE standards were initially implemented for a different purpose and don’t reflect contemporary realities, Bonner Cohen, a senior fellow with the National Center for Public Policy Research, said in an email.

“Originally enacted in response to the 1973 Arab oil embargo, CAFE standards were supposed to lessen U.S. dependence on Middle Eastern oil,” he wrote. “With the U.S. now the world’s leading producer of oil and natural gas, this justification of the program no longer holds water.

“CAFE has since been enlisted in the effort to combat climate change, with tailpipe CO2 emissions targeted for reduction. The repurposing of CAFE into a mechanism to fight global warming is not, however, based on climatological observations. Instead, it is rooted in models, known as general circulation models, purporting to project what temperatures will be decades from now depending on atmospheric levels of CO2.

“The Trump administration rightly scaled back an Obama-era CAFE scheme that relied on models that don’t even rise to the level of witchcraft. The result will be more and safer choices for consumers at a better price per vehicle.”

But environmental activists insist that Trump’s proposed rule change sets the wrong priorities.

“In the midst of a public health crisis, the Trump administration is once again putting oil industry profits ahead of the American people,” Earthjustice attorney Paul Cort said in a press statement.

“Weakening clean car standards will dramatically increase air pollution and harm public health. Transportation is the largest source of carbon pollution in the country, and this move undercuts one of our most important tools to solve the climate crisis. We’ll see the Trump administration in court.”

Free-market groups that signed the coalition letter are pushing back, as they would like the Trump administration to move more aggressively with its regulatory reforms.

“The basic idea behind the SAFE Vehicles Rule—the U.S. auto industry needed relief from costly mandates pricing millions of U.S. households out of the market for new, safer, more fuel-efficient vehicles—was always sound,” Marlo Lewis, a senior fellow with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, said in a press release.

“Now more than ever, with much of the economy shut down and oil prices crashing, automakers should be free to produce vehicles people want at prices they can afford. The only real question policymakers should be asking themselves about the SAFE Rule is whether its deregulatory measures go far enough.”

Sam Kazman, a general counsel for the free-market think tank, described Trump’s CAFE reforms as a “welcome step,” but he would have preferred to see the administration go further by either freezing or even rolling back the CAFE standards instead of slowing their increases.

“That would have been even better for consumers and for the country,” Kazman said.