Rollback of Obama-Era Fuel Economy and Emissions Standards May Stall

Article by Linda Gianelli Pratt

Former energy lobbyist Andrew Wheeler has continued the deregulatory course set by Scott Pruit. Within days of his appointment, he issued a proposed rollback of Obama-era fuel economy and emissions standards, while a new version of the Clean Power Plan could be released to the public in as little as one month.

The decades-long drive to reduce automotive carbon emissions would be at least as significant as the Trump administration’s other main rollback of climate rules—the attempt to dismantle the Clean Power Plan limits on emissions from power plants.

The draft of the revised Fuel Economy and Emissions Standards was leaked to the New York Times and says that regulators will freeze fuel economy standards at 2020 levels through 2026 vehicle model years. The proposal also says EPA will rescind a waiver that allows states to impose higher standards, setting up a potential legal battle between California, which has imposed stiffer standards since the 1970s, and the administration. Twelve states have followed California’s lead.

In the draft proposal, the administration assumes that consumers will drive less if their vehicles get lower gas mileage, which it claims would lower the number of fatal crashes—a controversial calculation that Wheeler used to justify the rollback.

According to one estimate, this proposed roll back of tailpipe rules nationwide could add nearly 1 billion tons of carbon pollution to the atmosphere. Officials have justified this sweeping change by claiming that the new rules will save hundreds of lives a year. They are so sure of those benefits that they have decided to call the policy the Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient Vehicles Rule—or SAFE, for short.

To change a federal rule, the executive branch must do its homework and publish an economic study arguing why the update is necessary. But Trump’s official justification for SAFE is honeycombed with errors. The most dramatic is that NHTSA’s model mixed up supply and demand: The agency calculated that as cars got more expensive, millions more people would drive them, and the number of traffic accidents would increase, my reporting shows. This error—later dubbed the “phantom vehicles” problem—accounted for the majority of incorrect costs in the SAFE study that the Trump administration released in 2018. It is what made SAFE look safe.

Once this and other major mistakes are fixed, all of SAFE’s safety benefits vanish, according to a recent peer-reviewed analysis in Science. If SAFE is adopted into law, American traffic deaths could actually increase, carbon pollution would soar, and global warming would speed up.

In other words, SAFE isn’t actually safe—and the Trump administration based its rollback on flawed math.

A final version of the rule is expected in the next several weeks. But that new version of the SAFE study recognizes that the benefits of the rollback do not exceed its costs, according to a letter from Senator Tom Carper of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, obtained by The Washington Post.

If Carper’s allegation is true, that could doom the proposal in court. In fact, several legal issues could hinder SAFE. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the Clean Air Act “requires” the EPA to regulate carbon pollution “from new motor vehicles.” But my reporting has found that NHTSA employees—and not EPA staff—wrote the first version of the rollback, raising questions about whether the rule is legally valid.

The errors could now cause legal trouble for the SAFE rollback. Under federal law, an agency must publish a detailed and genuine explanation of any proposed rulemaking. If it fails to meet that standard, then a court can toss out the new rule, pronouncing it “arbitrary and capricious.” The explanation for SAFE—at least in the proposal—does not appear to be genuine, since it contains fundamental errors that were identified before it was published.

The Trump administration has struggled to publish a final version of the SAFE rollback, pushing the deadline back several times. The extra time has only revealed new problems. Last month, Carper, the Democratic senator from Delaware, alleged that a new version of the NHTSA study admits that SAFE will impose $34 billion of costs on the American economy. (NHTSA had once promised $230 billion in net benefits.) The new study also admits that SAFE will cost consumers an extra $1,400 at the pump on average—and that SAFE will not save hundreds of lives a year, as it once claimed, Carper said.

After the final version of SAFE is published, it will go to the courts. Its odds of survival are unclear. Agencies must “offer genuine justifications for important decisions, reasons that can be scrutinized by courts and the interested public,”


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