Op-Ed: Trump Emissions Rule Will Accelerate Climate Change

Despite the current public health and economic emergency, the Trump Administration issued its final rule on vehicle fuel efficiency and CO2 emissions on March 31 2020.    Issued jointly by U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Trump Administration’s “Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE)” vehicles rule significantly rolled-back the standards that had been adopted during the Obama Administration.

Nothing that the Trump Administration has done or is likely to do will do more to accelerate the pace of climate change.

Arguably, the Obama corporate average vehicle economy (CAFE) standards were the single most important measure that that administration took to reduce green house gas (GHG) emissions.  Those standards would have, among other things, required that light-duty vehicles achieve approximately 54 miles per gallon (mpg) by model year 2026.  They would have also significantly reduced the transportation sector’s almost total dependence on petroleum.

Those realities made the Obama CAFE standards certain targets for reversal by the Trump Administration, which is committed to a deregulation agenda and beholden to the fossil fuel industry.   The Trump Administration already announced separately its intention to withdraw the decades-old waiver to California to issue and enforce more rigorous fuel emissions standards than the federal ones.  California, joined by twenty-two other states, has already initiated litigation to overturn this action.

The final Trump rule reduces the Obama fuel efficiency (mpg) standards dramatically, projecting an average fuel economy of only 40.4 mpg by model year 2026.  The Administration claims that its final rule will lead to much safer and less expensive automobiles and light trucks and that the benefit-cost analysis for the Trump rule is much more favorable, than under the Obama standards.

The timing of the final SAFE rule may have been primarily dictated by the Trump Administration’s desire that it not be reversed under the Congressional Review Act (CRA).  That law gives Congress the ability to nullify regulations issued by federal agencies within a specified time frame.  If a Democratic President and a Democratic Congress take office in January 2021, and the time frame for reviewing the SAFE vehicle rule were still open under CRA, Congressional Democrats could introduce and pass a joint resolution of disapproval of the Trump vehicles rule that would be exempt from Senate filibuster.  By issuing the SAFE vehicles rule on March 31, 2020, and hoping to get the final rule effective by April 30, the Trump Administration hopes to avoid that possibility (although the CRA “clock” is dependent on the number of days Congress is in session, which is being affected by coronavirus).

It is also opportune that these standards were issued when the attention of the media and the public was focused on the coronavirus pandemic.  In these circumstances, few were likely to pay attention to this extraordinarily important policy action by a national administration that denies the importance, if not the existence, of climate change.

A significant portion of the oil industry, outside of a few of the major producers, supports the Trump roll-back of the Obama standards.  However, the more ambivalent position of the automobile industry causes one to question the economic assumptions and benefit-cost analysis of the Trump rule.  While automakers were concerned that customer preferences would make it difficult to achieve the fleet mix, on which achievement of the more rigorous Obama and California standards rested, they sought a slow-down in the implementation, rather than a complete roll-back, of the Obama standards.

The automobile industry generally supported the far more rigorous Obama vehicle efficiency and emissions standards, when they were issued, and undertook engineering and planning consistent with them.   Almost certainly many of the automotive technologies that could achieve those standards are already in automobiles.  There is also substantial research and engineering devoted to the eventual electrification of the light-duty vehicle fleet.

Initially, the Trump Administration sought to freeze the standards at current levels.  In the end, it accepted some increases in the requirements for vehicle fuel efficiency and emissions, but at levels significantly below those projected and required for the next five years under the standards issued under President Obama.

The automobile companies also favored a compromise between California and the Trump Administration over fuel efficiency and emissions, rather than a withdrawal of the California waiver.  After the Trump administration announced its withdrawal of the waiver, five of the major automakers agreed to accept the more rigorous California standards.

The safety and economic justifications of the Trump rule – as well as the analytical processes that NHTSA and EPA used to develop it — will be tested in court.  Indeed, the desire to overturn an Obama initiative appears to have driven and dictated the analysis, which seems to have been designed to support a pre-determined conclusion.

The Trump final rule significantly and intentionally diminishes American efforts to address climate change.  Transportation is currently the largest contributor of GHG emissions in the American economy.  The Trump rule will, by its own admission, result in an increase of 874 million metric tons of CO2 emissions over the current standards.  The combination of the Trump standards and the plummeting of oil prices in a volatile global market will almost certainly mean greater gasoline usage and increased GHG emissions from America’s transportation sector, once the public health crisis abates.

I have long preferred market mechanisms to command-and-control regulations to stimulate innovations and serve community interests.  In the case of achieving fuel efficiency and reducing the transportation sector’s near total dependence on oil (and the resulting negative impacts on air quality and climate change), it would be far preferable to use market mechanisms, like carbon taxes, to achieve these public purposes.   Such a market mechanism would also be a more effective tool to stimulate innovation and reduce environmental impacts.

However, where the market fails, as it does in the area of environmental protection, regulation is needed, in order to achieve public purposes.   There is little choice, but to look to more aggressive and rigorous, but technologically achievable, CAFE standards.  The Trump administration’s final SAFE vehicle rule seeks not to achieve environmental goals, but instead to perpetuate the nation’s dependence on the oil industry and to reject the threats and risks of climate change.  The consequences of these policies will be severe and long-lasting.

The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Eno Center for Transportation.

Emil Frankel, a Senior Fellow at Eno Center for Transportation (Eno), served as Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy at U.S. Department of Transportation under President George W. Bush. The views expressed in this essay are his and not those of the Eno Center for Transportation.

Search Eno Transportation Weekly

Latest Issues

Happening on the Hill