This week, a group of 17 automakers sent a letter to President Trump asking him to back down from his administration’s plan to roll back Obama-era vehicle emissions standards. But while the letter was framed as a rebuke, or a warning, it made something clear: many of the world’s biggest automakers still want to lower emissions standards at a time when the planet is experiencing a blooming environmental crisis brought on by humans.
The Environmental Protection Agency first announced these emissions standards in 2009, and they went into place in 2012. According to the rule, automakers agreed to make it so their fleets would have average CO2 emissions of 163 grams per mile, equivalent to an average fleet fuel economy of 54.5 miles per gallon, by 2025. The standards would increase each year, forcing automakers to make their cars cleaner along the way, ultimately reducing greenhouse gas emissions by hundreds of millions of metric tons and cutting oil consumption by over 1 billion barrels.
Rolling back emissions standards was one of the first things Trump targeted when he took office
One of Trump’s first priorities when he took office in 2017 was rolling back this rule, and the automakers initially expressed support — some even before his inauguration. In April 2018, then-EPA director Scott Pruitt started the process to rewrite the rule, claiming the standards were “not appropriate” and argued that his predecessors at the agency “cut the [review] process short with politically charged expediency, made assumptions about the standards that didn’t comport with reality, and set the standards too high.” Pruitt’s EPA started a new rule-making process, though it based initial arguments on old, misleading data.
By August 2018, the administration unveiled its plan. The EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration drew up a rule that would freeze the escalating standards at the 2020 level of 37 miles per gallon, with no improvements after that. It argued that dirtier cars would be safer, since they’d be more affordable, and wouldn’t scare customers into hanging onto older, more dangerous vehicles.
In the letter sent this week, the automakers say they want something in the “midway” point between the current Obama rules and the rollback proposed by Mr. Trump. General Motors, Ford, Volkswagen Group, Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Jaguar, Kia, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Porsche, and Subaru all signed the letter. Fiat Chrysler did not sign, though it was one of just two automakers to testify at hearings held by the EPA about the rule change.
That’s not a rebuke, or a sign of the automakers standing up to Trump, according to Dave Cooke, the senior vehicles analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It’s the same stuff they’ve been saying for the past two years, but it’s being mis-spun as though they’re pushing back against the administration,” he says. “To me this letter was totally innocuous.” It’s also unlikely to work.
Continuing on with the current standards would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by some 900 million metric tons, according to the EPA’s original estimates. The automakers’ “midway” plan would therefore cost about half of that potential savings, Cooke says.
“We’ll have to make even more aggressive moves.”
“Anything in that range, it’s a pretty significant hit. And that’s just talking about the near term impact,” says Cooke. “If something like that is passed, it sets us behind everyone else moving beyond 2025, when we’ll have to make even more aggressive moves” to reduce emissions, he says, a nod to the strides Europe and China are making in reducing emissions.
The automakers argue in the letter that the Obama-era standards are unattainable because of increased SUV sales (which tend to burn more fuel); a decrease in sedan sales (which get better mileage); lower-than-expected gas prices; and a slower-than-expected adoption of electric and hybrid vehicles. They also claim that they want “one national standard that is practical, achievable, and consistent across the 50 states,” a nod to California’s ability to set its own emissions regulations. California has said that it will continue to enforce the Obama-era standards even if the Trump administration rolls them back, and so automakers are worried that this could cause uncertainty in the market.
But Cooke says automakers are “slow-rolling” technologies that could improve the efficiency of gas-powered vehicles. “They’re simply not pushing the bar on internal combustion engines at this point,” he says. He also points out that California is not likely to move off the stricter standards, meaning that even if automakers get their “midway” point, there’d still be a split.
“We have a 50 state standard on the books right now. It’s the standard that was finalized in 2012. It was approved by the previous administration, and it’s the same one as in California,” he says. “The automakers are pushing to make it weaker, and that’s how you get the bifurcation. Everything they’ve done is to make the standards weaker.”
Janet McCabe, who led the Obama EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation and worked on the original emissions overhaul, said in an email to The Verge that her concern is about what this means for beyond the scope of the rule. “As transportation is now the largest source of GHG emissions in the country, we ought to be talking about post 2026, which is right around the corner in terms of automotive manufacturing schedules,” she wrote.