The EPA's Short-Sighted Auto Emissions Decision

Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected to announce a roll-back of the Obama administration’s rules requiring carmakers to produce vehicles with an average fuel economy of 36 miles per gallon by 2025, up from 25 miles per gallon today.
Auto manufacturers agreed to the standards back in 2009, after they’d just been bailed out to the tune of $80 billion by the federal government, but they started complaining to the new administration about the burden of the goals as soon as Trump moved into the White House—the chief executives of Ford, General Motors, and Fiat Chrysler met with the president within weeks of his inauguration to tell him the Obama tailpipe standards were too challenging.
The administration’s move surprises no one. Trump chose Director Scott Pruitt, of course, based on his record suing the EPA more than a dozen times as Oklahoma attorney general. Since he was confirmed last February the agency has collected fewer fines from polluters and delayed implementation of rules on clean water, dangerous solvents, and safety procedures at chemical plants. Plus, Pruitt has wholeheartedly supported his boss’s decision to remove the United States from the Paris climate agreement.
On Tuesday, the EPA sent employees a list of talking points they’re allowed to use publicly in discussing climate change, which play up uncertainty in the established science. (The memo was leaked to the Huffington Post.)
“Human activity impacts our changing climate in some manner,” says one. “The ability to measure with precision the degree and extent of that impact, and what to do about it, are subject to continuing debate and dialogue.”
Another posits that “clear gaps remain including our understanding of the role of human activity and what we can do about it.”
Pruitt has also garnered attention for spending EPA money on domestic first-class flights and a secret phone booth in his office. He’s been able to save on his personal expenses, though, by renting a condo for well below market rate from the wife of an energy-industry lobbyist.
The auto emissions rule change, however, won’t be simple. Carmakers have put significant effort into producing and selling more efficient vehicles, particularly in states that have set their own climate goals, such as the northeast (where a new ad campaign was released this week to drum up sales for electric cars) and especially in California. The state has a special waiver under the 1970 Clean Air Act allowing it to enforce stronger air pollution standards than the federal government’s, and California’s attorney general Xavier Becerra has already affirmed his state’s plan to defend that right.
Several other states usually follow California’s lead. If the administration doesn’t go so far as to revoke the state’s waiver to set its own rules, then automakers will be stuck with having to meet two different standards—they might design more efficient cars for the coasts and continue selling more polluting vehicles to other states. Car companies might also just stick to the stricter California standards for the sake of consistency.
By slowing down the drive to make more efficient cars in the United States, the move might also simply give Chinese manufacturers an opportunity to pass American companies up. According to Greg Dotson, a law professor at the University of Oregon who has worked as a senior energy congressional staffer, China has set a target of selling 7 million new plug-in cars per year by 2025 and its government has begun discussing when to discontinue selling cars with internal combustion engines in the country.
What’s more, U.S. auto parts makers and suppliers of pollution control technologies have complained that weakening standards would cost them jobs in their sectors. “From an economic point of view, clean car technology represents a tremendous opportunity for the nation willing to step up and lead as the world transitions in the decades to come,” Dotson writes in The Conversation.
The EPA’s focus on short-term gifts to the big automakers could leave the country not only breathing dirtier air and dumping unnecessary greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but also losing the race to design and build the efficient cars that the whole world wants to buy.