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Trump Administration Weakens Auto Emissions Standards

Traffic on the Hollywood Freeway in Los Angeles in 2018. The Trump administration is weakening auto pollution standards, rolling back a key Obama-era policy that sought to curb climate change.
Damian Dovarganes
Traffic on the Hollywood Freeway in Los Angeles in 2018. The Trump administration is weakening auto pollution standards, rolling back a key Obama-era policy that sought to curb climate change.

Updated at 6:03 p.m. ET

The Trump administration has finalized its rollback of a major Obama-era climate policy, weakening auto emissions standards in a move it says will mean cheaper cars for consumers.

"By making newer, safer, and cleaner vehicles more accessible for American families, more lives will be saved and more jobs will be created," U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao said in a statement.

But consumer watchdog organizations, environmental groups and even the Environmental Protection Agency's own scientific advisory board have raised concerns about that rationale, saying the weakened standards will lead to dirtier air and cost consumers at the gas pump long-term.

Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew Wheeler called the new rule a move to "correct" Obama-era greenhouse gas emissions standards that were costly for automakers to comply with.

"Our final rule ... strikes the right regulatory balance that protects our environment, and sets reasonable targets for the auto industry," Wheeler said in a statement.

The Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule will increase carbon dioxide emissions standards for the nation's automakers by 1.5% a year through model year 2026. That's a far cry from the 5% annual increase mapped out under the Obama policy, which aimed to reduce emissions from the transportation sector, the largest source of climate-warming greenhouse gases in the U.S.

Following a request from the auto industry, the Trump administration originally proposed freezing the standards altogether without any increase. It modified the rule after pushback from not only environmental groups, but also some of those same automakers, who worried that a drastic change would put them out of step with a global marketplace increasingly geared toward lower-emission cars and trucks.

Still, critics say the new rule will lead to nearly a billion additional metric tons of climate warming CO2 in the atmosphere, and that consumers will end up losing money by buying about 80 billion more gallons of gas.

More fuel efficient cars are cheaper for consumers over the long run.

"More fuel efficient cars are cheaper for consumers over the long run," says Ann Carlson, an environmental law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee also questioned the timing of the final policy. "This rule will lead to dirtier air at a time when our country is working around the clock to respond to a respiratory pandemic whose effects may be exacerbated by air pollution," said U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., in a statement.

The Trump administration asserts that the new rule will save lives because Americans will buy newer, safer vehicles. But Carper and other critics point out that the agencies' own analysis finds there would be even more premature deaths from increased air pollution.

For that reason and others, the new standards are sure to face legal challenges questioning the administration's rational and underlying research. Even the Trump administration's own science advisers, evaluating the original proposal, said "there are significant weaknesses in the scientific analysis."

In a press conference announcing the new rule, representatives for the EPA and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, said they addressed earlier concerns over their analysis and modeling, using some of the detailed public comments they received on their proposal. But some environmental law and modeling experts remain unconvinced.

Antonio Bento, a professor of public policy and economics at the University of Southern California, who published a research paper critiquing the agencies' earlier analyses, said the administration continues to "cherry-pick numbers" to justify a politically driven policy change.

"There's nothing I can say to potentially defend how some of these assumptions got put in what is already a very messy model," he says.

Other academics express similar concern.

"The rollback of the vehicle emissions standards is based on analysis that is shoddy even by the shockingly unprofessional standards of Trump-era deregulation," said Richard Revesz of the Institute for Policy Integrity and dean emeritus at New York University School of Law.

California and other states are likely to file suit against the rule. They've asserted their long-standing right to set their own, stricter emissions standards, something the Trump administration has also challenged.

A worst-case scenario for automakers would be different standards in different states, which would result in a bifurcated auto market. The new policy may ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, but the uncertainty waiting for that would exact its own tollon an industry that must plan years ahead.

Thomas Pyle, president of the American Energy Alliance, welcomed the new standards. In a statement, he said the Obama-era mandate was "impossible to achieve without dramatically altering the automobile market or making the cost of vehicles out of reach for most American families. This new ... rule will make cars more affordable for consumers at a time when they need it most."

The Trump administration has been pushing ahead with a number of environmental rollbacks, aiming to finalize them well ahead of November's election. That would make it harder for a Democratic president, if one were elected, to reverse them again.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.
Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.
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