WASHINGTON — The Trump administration announced plans Thursday to freeze fuel-efficiency requirements for the nation’s cars and trucks through 2026 - a massive regulatory rollback likely to spur a legal battle with California and other states, as well as create potential upheaval in the nation’s automotive market.
The proposal represents an abrupt reversal of the findings that the government reached under President Barack Obama, when regulators argued that requiring more fuel-efficient vehicles would improve public health, combat climate change and save consumers money without compromising safety.
Trump’s plan also would revoke California’s long-standing legal waiver to set its own tailpipe restrictions, granted under the 1970 Clean Air Act, which the state has used most recently to try to curb greenhouse-gas emissions. It also would restrict the ability of states to follow California’s lead - something a dozen states and the District of Columbia already have done.
The likely legal clash over the policy threatens to rupture the nation’s auto market, doing away with uniform national standards negotiated by the Obama administration and potentially forcing automakers to produce different vehicles to meet standards in different states - something the industry has said it does not want.
On Thursday, a group of 19 attorneys general joined California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who vowed that the state would “use every legal tool at its disposal to defend today’s national standards and reaffirm the facts and science behind them.”
California Gov. Jerry Brown was more emphatic, saying his state “will fight this stupidity in every conceivable way possible.”
The Trump administration’s proposal argues that forcing automakers to essentially double the fuel economy of their fleets to reach an average of roughly 54 miles per gallon by 2025, as the Obama administration proposed in 2012, would make vehicles more expensive and encourage people to stick to driving older, less-safe cars and trucks.
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Rather, the administration’s analysis, published jointly by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, estimates that halting fuel-efficiency targets at 2020 levels could save $500 billion in “societal costs,” avoid thousands of highway fatalities and save Americans an estimated $2,340 on the cost of each new car.
The same analysis acknowledges that easing the Obama-era standards would increase U.S. fuel consumption by roughly half a million barrels of oil per day and contribute to global warming from increased greenhouse gas emissions.
Public-health experts and environmental groups quickly condemned the White House proposal, arguing that it ignores the health benefits from less-polluting cars and would lead to Americans spending more money at the gas pump. They said the rollback would allow more carbon dioxide to spew from the nation’s vehicles, squandering a chance to combat climate change in the transportation sector, which has emerged as the nation’s largest source of carbon dioxide emissions.
“By 2030, the pollution equivalent of this rollback will be like firing up 30 coal power plants,” Paul Cort, an attorney at the advocacy group Earthjustice, said in a statement. “It’s a boon for big oil that ordinary Americans will pay for with their health and their wallets.”
Some automakers privately have expressed unease at the abrupt freezing of fuel economy standards and the prospect of having to meet different requirements in different states. Industry representatives commended the Trump administration Thursday for putting out multiple options for public comment but stressed that they continue to support fuel-economy increases.
“With today’s release of the Administration’s proposals, it’s time for substantive negotiations to begin,” Gloria Bergquist, spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said in a statement. “We urge California and the federal government to find a common sense solution that sets continued increases in vehicle efficiency standards while also meeting the needs of America’s drivers.”
Ross Eisenberg, vice president for energy and resources policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, added that while the industry had pushed to revisit the Obama-era standards, “ultimately, manufacturers need a single national program that provides regulatory certainty and maintains vehicle affordability.”
Despite the ambivalence of automakers and the vehement opposition from environmental activists, the Trump administration’s push to ease fuel economy standards got a warm reception from oil and gas interests.
“What started as a mandate in the mid-1970’s to reduce foreign imports of oil morphed into a costly and unworkable environmental regulation thanks to bureaucrats in the previous administration and in Sacramento,” Thomas J. Pyle, president of the free-market advocacy group American Energy Alliance, said in a statement. “President Trump should be commended for standing up for American consumers by reducing the regulatory burden placed unnecessarily on automakers.”
Trump administration officials fought for weeks behind the scenes over the details of how to relax Obama-era standards. Top officials at the Transportation Department and the Environmental Protection Agency clashed over whether the White House’s justifications for the new policy can stand up to legal scrutiny.
In one recent internal presentation, part of which was obtained by The Washington Post, officials at the EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality warned that the proposal at that point contained “a wide range of errors, use of outdated data, and unsupported assumptions.”
Ultimately, the two agencies published Thursday’s proposal jointly, and acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler publicly defended the proposal during testimony Wednesday before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
In hundreds of pages of analysis, NHTSA argues that the costs of meeting federal mileage requirements over the next few years would boost the sticker price of vehicles, prompting people to continue driving older cars and trucks rather than buying newer, more efficient ones. That would in turn increase the risks of accidents, they said.
EPA officials questioned some of those estimates, as well as the Department of Transportation’sidea that federal officials could block California and other states from imposing their own vehicle tailpipe standards on the grounds that a 1975 energy law reserved that right for the DOT.
One key proponent of the new plan is Deputy Transportation Secretary Jeffrey Rosen, who oversees the department’s deregulatory efforts. NHTSA Deputy Administrator Heidi King, who declined at her confirmation hearing to say whether she believes humans cause climate change, also helped lead the drive to scale back the fuel efficiency regulations, which were among the Obama administration’s most significant climate change initiatives.
The administration’s proposal argues that freezing the fleetwide average of 37 miles per gallon in 2020 would prevent roughly 12,700 traffic fatalities in vehicles built through model year 2029. But it discounts figures showing that more stringent fuel standards would save consumers thousands of dollars in gas costs and prevent the release of billions of tons of greenhouse gases in coming years.
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President Donald Trump’s sparring over trade with Mexico, Canada and much of the rest of the world, his steel and aluminum tariffs, and his threat to impose 25 percent auto-related tariffs, have exacerbated automakers’ concerns. The automobile tariffs alone could add thousands of dollars to the price of a car, General Motors told regulators this month.
The administration’s proposal Thursday centers on two primary arguments: affordability and safety. In both cases, the current administration came to different conclusions than its predecessor.
In 2016, EPA and NHTSA estimated that complying with the tighter tailpipe standards would cost roughly $900 and $1,200 per car, respectively, by 2025. Two years later, Trump officials argue that keeping the Obama-era standards could raise vehicle sticker prices by more than $2,300. That shift is crucial, because the proposed Trump freeze, which would block higher fuel standards from taking effect, is based on the idea that meeting stricter emissions targets harms both the economy and motorist safety.
The idea that higher gas mileage would translate into less-safe cars has preoccupied policymakers for decades, but a growing body of research challenges that idea.
The National Bureau of Economic Research published a study in April 2017 that examined how automakers reduced the weight of vehicles to improve fuel efficiency, and concluded that fatalities declined as a result of stricter efficiency standards. The authors noted that by taking weight out of the fleet overall, it reduced the overall severity of crashes.
“Despite considerable resistance to [Corporate Average Fuel Economy] standards based on concerns that downweighting leads to increased fatalities, we find that CAFE likely saved lives,” the authors wrote. “The fatality risk of decreasing the weight of all vehicles by 50 lbs is different than the relative risk of a vehicle that is 50 lbs lighter in a multivehicle crash.”
Officials at the Aluminum Association, which has urged the Trump administration to reach a compromise with California on a uniform tailpipe standard, said that reducing the weight of cars and light trucks can actually increase safety.
David Friedman, who directs cars and product policy and analysis at the Consumers Union and served as NHTSA’s acting administrator under the Obama administration, said that for more than a decade, the standards have given manufacturers an incentive to take more weight out of heavier cars and leave the weight in lighter vehicles, which has bolstered safety. “It lowers the energy of the crashes, and it does so in the safest way possible,” he said.
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Last year, 37,150 people died on U.S. roads, and several factors contributed far more to that grim toll than any potential impact related to tailpipe regulations. For example, more than a quarter of all road deaths were connected to drunken driving, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 25 percent of deaths involved speeding, the CDC said.
The Trump administration said Thursday that it will accept public comment on its latest proposal for 60 days. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the EPA also plan to hold public hearings in Washington, Detroit and Los Angeles.