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It’s time for GM to abandon Trump’s auto emissions rollback

It’s time for GM to abandon Trump’s auto emissions rollback


The company can’t have it both ways if it really wants a zero-emission future

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GM CEO Mary Barra shakes hands with President Trump in January, 2017. Automakers initially encouraged Trump to relax Obama-era fuel economy standards.
Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

General Motors just held an “EV Day” where it detailed a $20 billion push into electric vehicles. The company’s plan consists of releasing more than a dozen electric vehicles under each of its four main sub-brands, many of which will be built on an all-new modular battery pack full of cells that GM is designing in conjunction with LG Chem.

It’s an impressive refocusing of the company’s previously opaque plans to shift to electric vehicles. And that makes it the perfect time for the biggest automaker in the country to walk away from supporting President Trump’s stalled, flawed emissions rollback.

For years, GM has wanted consumers to believe that it’s fulfilling a “vision of an all-electric future,” one where cars, SUVs, and trucks emit zero emissions. But in October, GM decided to side with the Trump administration’s ongoing attempt to roll back an Obama-era fuel economy standard that, if successful, would put hundreds of millions more tons of carbon dioxide into the air and use up more than a billion barrels of oil.

GM is undermining its electric ambitions by aligning with Trump

GM is not alone in supporting Trump’s rollback attempt. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Toyota also backed it in October of last year and have taken varying amounts of heat for doing so. But neither of those companies is promising the same kind of zero-emission revolution as GM. And by aligning itself with the rollback, GM is undermining not only its many public boasts about wanting to clean up the transportation sector, but the hard work of its employees that was on display during its “EV Day.”

In response to a request for comment, GM sent a statement that largely mirrors the few its given in the months since it sided with Trump. Regardless of the standards, we are committed to a future of zero crashes, zero emissions, and zero congestion,” the company says. “The pathway to that future includes continually improving fuel economy year-over-year and our commitment to an all-electric future.”

GM has otherwise not said much in public since October about this decision. Mostly, the company has deferred to comments from the auto industry’s biggest trade group, which said the companies “had an obligation to intervene” in order to protect having one federal standard for fuel economy.

What does that mean? California has the ability to set its own emissions standards under the Clean Air Act, and GM and others worry that Trump’s rollback would cause a schism in the market, leaving different states with different standards. What supporters of the rollback are always careful not to say, though, is that the existing Obama-era standard is still in place and is currently not causing any such schism. It’s explicitly because Trump is trying to lower the federal fuel economy standard that there’s even a risk in the first place.

Another argument that GM and these other automakers have made is that the market has changed since the standard was written. Consumers are back to buying lots of SUVs and trucks, which tend to emit more greenhouse gases, and so they say the rules should be relaxed to account for this. What these companies don’t say is that SUVs and trucks are bigger cash cows than cars, and that automakers (and their dealer networks) are incentivized to push consumers toward these vehicles in order to generate more profit. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem that often goes unacknowledged. (Never mind the fact that the EPA found in 2016 that automakers were, on average, “over-complying” with the standard.)

Trump’s rollback attempt is deeply flawed

What strains GM’s credulity is that Trump’s rollback is deeply flawed, to the point that it’s unlikely to stand up in court, according to recent reports from The Atlantic and The New York Times. The math is bad, and the rollback will wind up costing consumers more money, on top of damaging the environment.

With all that in mind, it’s unclear why GM continues to stand on Trump’s side here. GM has been a frequent target of Trump’s nationalistic approach to the economy, with the president repeatedly hurling invectives at the automaker any time he isn’t happy with the company’s business decisions.

Perhaps GM thought taking his side would also dull his attacks. (The man does love a quid pro quo, after all). But as Trump has demonstrated time and again, his demands for loyalty are always self-serving, and he will kneecap even the most ardent supporter if he stands to benefit.

The reality is GM aligned itself with a president who has, at best, displayed no interest in wanting to protect the environment and, at worst, supports people and companies who want to ruin it for their own personal gain. That’s something we should all remember any time the automaker makes a public statement about wanting a cleaner future.

So it’s time for GM to abandon the rollback. Volkswagen, Ford, Honda, and BMW have joined California in committing to big year-over-year increases of the fuel economy of their vehicle fleets (at a level that’s still slightly less than the Obama-era standard). GM can join them if it likes or simply stick to the federal standard that is still in place, setting itself up to be compliant if and when Trump’s rollback finally fails.

If the company is really as optimistic about the prospects of its $20 billion electric vehicle push as it says it is, increasing the fuel economy of its fleet every year should be a readily attainable goal.