The case for keeping fuel efficiency standards
Last week, the Trump administration announced its intent to roll back fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks sold in the United States through 2026, and to eliminate states’ authority to set their own, more stringent pollution standards. The move is backward looking for American business, consumers and the environment.
Other than President Trump and many elected Republicans, everyone understands that the planet faces extinction from the effects of climate change. That means hotter temperatures, more severe weather, food shortages, water shortages, more intense wildfires, and dislocation of huge populations around the world in coastal areas that will be flooded in time. We know that if we act now, we can avoid much of the worst of it. Still, we can’t pretend it will go away on its own.
That’s why the rest of the world is acting. Every country signed the Paris Agreement, a framework for reducing climate pollutants over time. The U.S. military has declared climate change a force multiplier that will aggravate stressors including social tension and political instability, which could enable more terrorist activity and other forms of violence. The Department of Defense is innovating its way away from its overreliance on fossil fuels.
Business gets it, too. China has decreed that one fifth of its automobile fleet will run on alternative fuel within eight years; every worldwide automaker will have to compete in that space. Shareholders at ExxonMobil are demanding climate action from that company. Even some respected Republicans support a carbon tax. The Pope and the American evangelical church have called for action to save God’s creation from climate change. And state and local governments have not waited for the federal government to exercise leadership.
The leader has been the state of California. California has consistently led the way with bold clean energy goals and developed innovative solutions to address air pollution even before the Clean Air Act passed. Multiple states followed our lead. The Trump administration wants to jeopardize future progress that consumers demand.
In 2005, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced that California would act to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to below 1990 levels, and in 2015, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown announced even more ambitious goals. Through innovation, regulation, and a cap-and-trade incentive system, California has already met its initial goals at the same time our economy has burgeoned.
One tool we have used to combat pollution was something Gov. Ronald Reagan negotiated five decades ago. He was worried that the federal government would not be aggressive enough in setting standards to fight the major air pollution and smog challenges California faced. California got permission in the federal law—a “waiver”— to set emissions standards from vehicles that are more stringent than federal standards. Because California is a big market, that waiver has pushed the entire auto industry to produce more fuel efficient and less polluting cars and trucks.
Now, the geniuses that pulled us out of the Paris Agreement want to freeze the federal fuel standard and prevent California from continuing their own higher standards, granted under the 51-year-old waiver.
Their rationale is that the big cars and trucks are safer. The research doesn’t support that, and current EPA officials have admitted that in their internal discussions.
It’s bad for safety and it’s bad for consumers. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, "The clean car standards are already saving our families billions at the pump, supporting nearly 300,000 American jobs, and cleaning up dangerous tailpipe pollution." The California modeling firm Energy Innovation estimates that the administration’s action would increase U.S. fuel use 20 percent by 2035, costing the U.S. economy $457 billion and causing 13,000 deaths by 2050 because of bad air quality.
And, not for nothing, this is terrible for public health and the environment. According to David Cooke, senior vehicles analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, "By going after state authority to set emissions standards, the administration would also be fighting against one of the strongest levers California and other states have on public health. Electrification of transportation is a key component of many state plans to meet air quality requirements. Attacking state leadership on cleaner vehicles is a direct attack on public health, particularly that of the most vulnerable communities."
The automaker lobby wanted the administration to revise the Obama fuel standards, but the Trump Administration took this much further than even the carmakers wanted. Now, we have a disaster. This regulatory rollback completely disregards Americans’ health and undermines our work to keep our air and water clean. It also stifles innovation and competition that has created more efficient, cleaner engines that can power our future. It’s out of step with the rest of the world.
We will, and we should, fight this idiocy in the courts, in Washington, and at the ballot box. Saving the planet will be hard enough without ideological insanity combined with the unforgiveable silence of elected Republicans who know better.
Peters represents California's 52th District and is a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee.