When EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced that his agency plans to roll back fuel efficiency and emissions standards for cars and light trucks, some observers saw it as a win for the auto industry and for consumers eager to purchase gas-guzzling SUVs and pickup trucks. The big winner, though, is Big Oil.
In 2012, the Obama administration approved the current emissions standards, negotiated as a compromise between the White House and the auto industry shortly after taxpayers rescued GM and Chrysler from financial collapse. A lot has changed since then, and not just the occupant of the Oval Office. Thanks to an oil boom, gas prices at the pump have plummeted, and trucks and SUVs were the best-selling vehicles in the United States last year.
Automakers have been seeking flexibility in meeting the agreed-upon standards, which would double the average fleet efficiency to about 50 mpg by 2025, but the Trump administration went much further and could cause two problems for Detroit. First, it could put American automakers out of step with the rest of the global market—making them less competitive with companies such as Honda and Toyota that are building cleaner, more efficient vehicles for other countries and have invested heavily in electric cars and hybrids. Second, it could create a two-tiered domestic system in which California, the nation’s largest automotive market, would have different emissions standards than the federal government.
The Clean Air Act empowers the federal government to set tailpipe emissions standards, but a waiver granted to California allows the state to impose stricter air pollution standards than those set by the feds. Pruitt’s office says that it is “reexamining” the California waiver, but California and a dozen other states have announced that they will keep the Obama-era rules in place. Pruitt has yet to announce specific plans for replacing the Obama-era regulations, but the stage is set for a courtroom battle.
The standards rollback is arguably the Trump administration’s single biggest step backward on climate change and air pollution. The transportation sector has eclipsed power plants as the biggest source of US carbon emissions, and EPA calculated in 2010 that the tougher fuel-efficiency standards would prevent more than one year’s worth of total US carbon emissions over the lifetime of new vehicles sold from 2012 through 2025.
The Obama standards were also expected to save families more than $1.7 trillion in fuel costs, and to reduce America’s dependence on oil by more than 2 million barrels per day in 2025. But those gains would be the fossil fuel industry’s loss. “The proposal to roll back air pollution and fuel economy standards is another shameless giveaway to the dying fossil fuel industry at the expense of our economy and the health of the American people,” said New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo.