Rollback of Obama-Era Fuel Economy and Emissions Standards

Article by Linda Gianelli Pratt

Former energy lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, the current EPA Administrator, has continued the deregulatory course set by former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. Within days of his appointment, he issued a proposed rollback of Obama-era fuel economy and emissions standards.

On March 31st, the rollback was official. The Trump administration officially rolled back the standards, severely limiting a rule designed to decrease pollution from transportation in the face of climate change.

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.

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.

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 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.

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. Earlier government analysis found that while 600 to 700 Americans might be saved by better safety features in newer and less expensive vehicles, nearly 1,000 might die prematurely given the increase in smog and air pollution from vehicle emissions, according to documents obtained by Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.).

And even with historically low gas prices, consumers are expected to pay more at the pump. An analysis from Consumer Reports found U.S. drivers would spend $300 billion more on gas over the lifetime of the vehicles because of the decrease in fuel efficiency. The increased cost to consumers holds true even if gas falls to $1.50 per gallon, as prices are expected to rebound by the time frame most of the new vehicles would be produced.

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.” 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.”


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