Donald Trump has finally gotten one of the long-standing wishes of his presidency: the weakening of an Obama-era fuel economy standard that made new cars more fuel efficient and environmentally friendly. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency announced a new line Tuesday will take its place, one that will increase pollution as the world struggles with a respiratory virus pandemic and a climate crisis.
Under the new rule, automakers will now need to increase the average fuel consumption of their new fleets by 1.5 percent each year through their 2026 model year lineup, eventually reaching an average of about 40 miles per gallon. Under the previous rule – which the EPA found under Obama that automakers were “over-compliant” in 2016 – automakers had to increase the average fuel consumption of their fleet by 5 percent, with the aim of achieving 54 miles per gallon in the model for 2026 years of cars .
The change is expected to result in the release of nearly a billion tons more carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, fuel consumption of about 80 billion gallons and oil consumption of 2 billion barrels – all at a time when the the transport sector is the world’s largest source of CO2 emissions.
The Trump administration’s argument in support of the rollback is essentially this: new cars have become more expensive the more economically they have been, forcing more people to buy used cars or stick with the cars they already have. Because older cars are not equipped with the kind of modern safety features found on new ones, they are less safe. Lowering the fuel economy standard cuts the initial cost of a new vehicle by about $ 1,000, meaning more people can buy newer, safer cars.
It is a flawed argument for a number of reasons. For starters, the administration has not, in fact, taken into account the fact that average car prices have risen in the US as automakers now strongly favor the sale of more expensive – and more importantly, more profitable – SUVs and trucks, until the point that many of them virtually remove sedans from their lineup.
While most consumers would likely appreciate a cheaper sticker price, some experts believe the new rule would ultimately cost them more over the life of these cars. Consumer Reports recently did an analysis which showed that even if gas prices drop to $ 1.50 per gallon and stay there for the next 30 years, rolling back “would still increase the total cost of ownership of new vehicles for consumers.”
Nor does there seem to be a guarantee that the lower cost of fuel economy technology required to meet the new standard will be passed on to consumers in the form of that $ 1,000 savings. Asked about this during an interview with reporters, NHTSA’s acting administrator, James Owens, said it would in fact be up to automakers to use that extra headroom to compete on price.
“We have competitive strength in our country, and eventually American families will make their purchasing decisions based on many different factors, and our automakers will continue, we hope they will continue to compete for those sales,” he said.
The Trump administration has also paid little attention during this three-year process to the fact that as newer cars are now usually larger vehicles, pushing more consumers into these vehicles will directly increase the risk to pedestrians who die after death amid the rise of SUVs and trucks.
This should come as no surprise. Trump’s attempt to reverse the Obama era standard has been built on thin and misleading arguments from the start. When the EPA first officially claimed that the Obama era standard was overly aggressive in April 2018, it based that argument on the discussion points of automotive lobbyists and (what were then) two-year-old data.
The new rule announced Tuesday by NHTSA and the EPA has not been rolled back as hard as Trump originally wanted. When Trump’s EPA unveiled its first formally proposed version of the rule in 2018, he suggested freezing the planned annual gains in fuel consumption at the 2020 level, which would have limited the required gains at 37 miles per gallon.
As automakers began lobbying Trump to roll back the standard within days of taking office, even they stalled completely. They have since split into their alliances. Volkswagen, Ford, Honda and BMW each signed a deal with California last year to commit to a 3.7 percent annual increase in average fuel consumption, while General Motors, Toyota and Fiat Chrysler sought support for the Trump administration’s simultaneous attempt to revoke California’s authority to set its own emission standards.