After the Trump administration picked a fight on tailpipe emissions that Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler tried to avoid, 19 states and Washington, DC are headed to court to defend their auto energy efficiency rules and their right under Section 177 of the Clean Air Act to set their own standards.
The states “announced they would sue to halt the proposed rollback, touching off what will likely be a heated legal showdown, possibly making it to the Supreme Court,” Reuters reports. “It could also become a polarizing issue in elections in November,” with mid-term elections now just 91 days away. [Just sayin’. – Ed.]
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“Many U.S. states have adopted California’s emission rules, and together they make up about one-third of the U.S. auto market—making the stakes for the auto industry enormous,” the news agency notes. “The administration said the proposed rollback would mean billions of dollars in regulatory savings for car manufacturers. But the industry is pushing for a negotiated settlement between states and the administration to lift uncertainty over the kinds of cars and trucks it will need to produce for the American market in the coming years.”
In the weeks leading up to the White House regulatory rollback, it was clear that automakers had been lobbying to relax Obama-era rules, but hadn’t wanted Washington to go far enough to spark a legal battle against California and the so-called 177 states, whose authority to set their own efficiency standards is based on California’s.
“If California were to prevail in the likely legal clash to come, the state could set tougher standards than the federal government, leaving automakers with the prospect of manufacturing vehicles that meet different rules in different states—something the industry has said it does not want,” the Washington Post states.
But now, the Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) from the Department of Transportation and the EPA “would freeze fuel efficiency standards at 2020 levels through 2026, and require dramatically fewer electric vehicles as more people continue to drive gasoline-powered vehicles,” Reuters notes. “The administration said the freeze would boost U.S. oil consumption by about 500,000 barrels of oil a day by the 2030s, and argued it would prevent up to 1,000 traffic fatalities per year by reducing the price of new vehicles and so prompting people to buy newer, safer vehicles more quickly.”
“Unless the Obama administration’s punishing standards are changed, consumer choice will be limited and the cost of vehicles will skyrocket,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY). “Americans shouldn’t be denied the ability to purchase a car or truck that meets their needs.”
But the Trump team’s core argument—that weaker efficiency standards will promote driver safety by curbing vehicle miles travelled, speeding up the rate at which consumers buy newer, safer vehicles, and enabling automakers to design heavier, supposedly safer cars—is not landing well with outside experts who know the industry.
“I don’t know how they are going to defend this analysis,” said University of Southern California economist Antonio M. Bento, whose research is cited throughout the administration’s report. “I just don’t think it’s correct.” In an opinion piece for the New York Times, Daniel Becker and James Gerstenzang take aim at the notion that a cleaner car is less safe than a dirty one.
But if the NPRM survives legal challenges (and a possible or likely Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives in January), Times climate and energy specialist Brad Plumer warns the rollback could become Trump’s “most consequential climate-policy rollback yet, increasing greenhouse gas emissions in the United States by an amount greater than many midsized countries put out in a year.”
If the measure were enacted, “America’s cars and trucks would emit an extra 321 million to 931 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere between now and 2035 as a result of the weaker rules, according to an analysis by the research firm Rhodium Group. A separate estimate by the think tank Energy Innovation pegged the number even higher, at 1.25 billion metric tons,” Plumer writes. “To put that in context, the extra pollution in 2035 alone would be more than the current annual emissions from countries like Austria, Bangladesh, or Greece.”
The rollback would also cost the country’s consumers US$457 billion, Greentech Media reports. “It’s hard to overstate the foolishness of this move,” said Energy Innovation CEO Hal Harvey. Modelled as a gas tax, the rollback would be the equivalent of 57¢ per gallon in 2040.
“By hitting the brakes on corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) and greenhouse gas emissions standards before model year 2021, the administration would cause the owner of an average model year 2025 vehicle to fill up the gas tank 66 more times and drive up the cost of ownership by $1,620 over the life of the vehicle,” adds Therese Langer, transportation program director at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.
“By 2035, the rollback would add at least 158 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to our air annually and increase U.S. fuel consumption by 13.9 billion gallons per year—more than we import each year from Iraq or Venezuela,” she added. “That is the equivalent of having more than 39 million additional cars on the road.”
But Harvey said it would make little sense for automakers to retool their production before they know whether the rollback will survive the court challenges ahead. “How do you decide your cars’ [standards] if you have no idea if Trump’s going to win, or the original regulations are going to prevail? If you’re smart, you’re going to follow the original regulations anyway,” he said. “Car companies have to make multi-billion-dollar decisions based on new uncertainty.”
With that in mind, Équiterre issued a news release last week, calling on the Canadian government to go its own way on tailpipe emission standards.
“Given the harmonization of Canadian and U.S. standards, the weakening of U.S. regulations could lead to a corresponding weakening in Canada if the federal government does not hold its ground on GHG emissions reductions,” the release states. “In light of this step backwards in the fight against climate change, Équiterre is calling on the Canadian government to maintain its position on emissions standards and to break away from the U.S. federal regulation.”
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