It’s a classic case of be careful what you wish for. Automakers asked the Trump administration to weaken emissions and efficiency standards for cars and light trucks, and are now anxious about just how much the Trump administration actually plans to weaken the standards.
On Friday, May 12, heads of car companies visited the White House, to make the awkward request that Trump not actually give them what they asked for.
In late April, a draft of a joint Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Transportation (DOT) plan leaked, signaling the administration’s intent to halt increases in fuel efficiency (or CAFE) standards after model year 2021, and to perform a legal end run around California’s authority under the Clean Air Act to set its own greenhouse gas emissions standards for personal vehicles.
Fearing years of litigation from states — including California and at least a dozen others — and indefinite regulatory uncertainty, the automakers were quick to announce that they aren’t seeking such a radical rollback from the current program.
“We are not asking the administration for a rollback,” said Bill Ford, chairman of Ford Motor Co., at the company’s annual meeting last Thursday. “We want California at the table, and we want one national standard.”
Mitch Bainwol, head of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (or Auto Alliance), the main domestic trade group of car companies, warned Congress of a “regulatory nightmare” if the federal standards and California’s were not aligned. Bainwol also said that “automakers continue to support increased year-over-year fuel efficiency standards and are investing heavily in new technologies to improve fuel economy for our customers and the environment.”
Not long ago, Bainwol and the automakers were singing a different tune. “If left unchanged, those standards could cause up to 1.1 million Americans to lose jobs due to lost vehicle sales,” Bainwol wrote in a February 2017 letter to Scott Pruitt and other Trump appointees.
As of this past week, the Auto Alliance is asking for the preservation of “One National Program,” while asking “California to compromise” as well and allow for some added flexibilities to allow for easier compliance as the standards continue to increase.
Trump Admin’s Arguments for Rolling Back Standards Fundamentally Flawed
In rejecting the Obama EPA’s review of the current program, current EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt cited a number of industry-supplied reasons. None of them hold up to scrutiny.
“Facts don’t lie, and the data completely refute the Trump/Pruitt Administration’s latest convoluted rationale for rolling back the standards,” said Jack Gillis, Executive Director of the Consumer Federation of America (CFA). “Safety is up, fuel economy is up, and sales are up. Older, gas guzzling cars are less safe and more expensive to operate and people know it. That’s why they are being driven off the road. The truth is that today’s ‘all-new’ vehicles are the safest, most efficient, most desirable cars, trucks, and SUVs in history, and consumers are responding by buying record numbers. Americans want cars that save both lives and money. ”
Gillis and his staff released a report on May 10 that refuted the safety, cost, and sales arguments point by point. The CFA report found that while cars sold in the U.S. have increased from 21.8 miles per gallon (mpg) in 2011 to 25.1 mpg in 2018, they have also become safer. It also found that savings in gasoline costs over the life of the vehicle will generally outweigh the the average increase in vehicle price that could be attributed to the increased efficiency standards.
Finally, the report revealed that new car sales have been increasing at a historic rate, as the federally mandated efficiency increases have been in place. Thought Pruitt’s EPA argues that fuel efficiency standards hurt new car sales, the data reveals the exact opposite to be true.
Koch Reps from Trump’s Transition Teams Tell Automakers to Burn More Gasoline
Meanwhile, three former members of Trump’s transition teams — all of whom work or worked with Koch-funded and Koch-founded organizations — sent a letter to the President on May 10 advising him to ignore the car companies and roll back the standards:
“As a continuation of that progress, we encourage you to stay the course on needed and essential reforms to the federal automobile mandate, more commonly known as the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) program …
We understand that some in the automaker community have expressed concerns about your current plans to reform the program.
But it is worth noting that early in your presidency, these same automakers urged your administration to ‘reconsider imposing such a far-reaching mandate on an entire industry.’”
The letter was signed by Tom Pyle of the Institute for Energy Research (IER), Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and Shirley Ybarra, a former fellow at the Reason Foundation. All three organizations have close Koch ties, and Pyle was himself a lobbyist for Koch Industries, the petrochemical empire privately owned by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.
This letter echoes some main themes of another letter recently sent by a different collection of Koch-affiliated spokespersons and groups, as reported last month in DeSmog. Both letters argue that the Trump administration should revoke California’s right, as expressed in the Clean Air Act and granted by a waiver from the EPA in 2009, to set its own greenhouse gas standards. Under the current regulatory regime, the waiver is redundant, as California agreed to the unified “One National Program” with the EPA and DOT.
However, if the Trump administration backs out of the deal, California’s waiver would allow it to preserve stronger standards than Pruitt’s EPA would demand.
Trump reportedly told Pruitt and DOT Secretary Elaine Chao to pick up negotiations with California. But as of now, it’s anybody’s guess how the White House will respond to the automakers’ plea for stability and consistency.
Main image: President Trump meets with auto industry executives days after taking office. Credit: The White House, public domain