Rollback on Auto Emission Standards Faces Rocky Road

January 16, 2019
A traffic jam in New York’s Time Square. Transportation-based U.S. carbon dioxide emissions are now as large as those from electric power plants, leading to a political tug of war over cutting exhausts with improved mileage. Photo: joiseyshowaa via Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

TipSheet: Rollback on Auto Emission Standards Faces Rocky Road

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is one in a series of special reports from SEJournal’s Joseph A. Davis that looks ahead to key issues in the coming year. Visit the full “2019 Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment” special report for more.

Hear that bumpy sound? That could be the Trump administration’s auto mileage standards rollback running on flat tires in 2019. Expect a fight over this anti-regulatory initiative, but don’t expect an easy completion in the coming year.

A lot is at stake. Cities like Los Angeles and Houston still sometimes choke on smog from auto emissions, yet many Americans still love their pickup trucks, the planet is still getting warmer and the auto industry is still not making as much money as it wants to.

Former President Barack Obama announced a rule in July 2011 that gradually tightened fuel-efficiency and emissions standards for cars and light trucks over the years leading up to model year 2025. Unlike some earlier standards, it was designed specifically as a climate action.

It is worth remembering that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (mostly carbon dioxide) from transportation are now as large as those from electric power plants. Improving mileage of the total fleet, other things being equal, significantly reduces CO2 emissions. It was a major component of Obama’s effort to address climate with executive powers.

It is also worth remembering that the 2011 Obama standards were a political compromise — one supported by both U.S. carmakers and environmental groups. It gave each group some of what they wanted but not all. Carmakers supported it … until they didn’t.


California resists Trump plan

The current fracas was kicked off when Obama tried to “lock in” the compromise agreement as he left office in late 2016 with early completion of a “midterm review.” At the same time, President Donald Trump had gotten elected promising to dismantle the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

By March 2017, Trump was addressing a crowd before TV cameras in Detroit, promising a rollback (may require subscription). And by 2018, EPA was actually proposing a rule that would stop tightening efficiency standards after 2020 (may require subscription).

Trump’s proposal had another thorn in it: It threatened to sweep away a waiver allowing smog-plagued California to set its own tighter standard, a waiver that had been part of the landscape since the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970. Twelve states and the District of Columbia have adopted California's tighter standards.

California has tried, so far unsuccessfully, to negotiate (may require subscription) its waiver with the Trump administration, and the state shows no sign of rolling over (may require subscription).

As of today, the Trump administration has not finalized its proposal. That could happen in 2019. Or not. Administration officials are still fighting about it.

Lawsuits over regulations usually don’t start until a rule is finalized. Not this one. California and at least 16 other states have already sued the Trump administration. The states filed back in May 2018, so watch for developments in 2019, especially if and when the Trump administration finalizes its rule.


Auto industry split on rollback

Meanwhile, cracks have begun appearing in the once seemingly solid coalition of carmakers.

Some have begun suggesting that the Trump efficiency rollback proposal was not what they wanted at all.  That could be seen in company comments on the proposed rule.

Both Honda and General Motors opposed the rollback, arguing Trump should not simply roll over California, but should try to negotiate (may require subscription) some consensus package that would not fracture the nationwide auto market. These companies are seeking an edge in the more-efficient and electric (zero-emissions) car markets. Ford and Fiat Chrysler also deviated from the Trump line.


One thing that will harm the Trump effort

when the administration has to

defend its rule in court is that

its cost-benefit justification is riddled with

fatal and embarrassing math errors.


One thing that will harm the Trump effort when the administration has to defend its rule in court is that its cost-benefit justification is riddled with fatal and embarrassing math errors. By exaggerating the rule’s benefits and lowering its costs, the justification stands to be ridiculed as made-up (or “arbitrary and capricious” in rulemaking jargon).

The errors (including claims of safety benefits) are central to the administration’s case. They may not be fixable, and are likely to make the administration’s proposal untenable.

Another leg was kicked out from under the Trump auto emissions rollback on Dec. 13 when the New York Times published an investigative piece by Hiroko Tabuchi (may require subscription). Using documents, she showed that “Marathon Petroleum, the country’s largest refiner, worked with powerful oil-industry groups and a conservative policy network financed by the billionaire industrialist Charles G. Koch to run a stealth campaign to roll back car emissions standards.”

Other oil companies were also involved in the covert campaign. Their motives had nothing to do with the public interest — only with a desire to sell more oil.

Oil may be one of the underappreciated variables that will affect what happens to the Trump auto rollbacks in 2019. When the Obama rule came out in 2011, the price of oil was very high. As 2019 begins, it is sagging to very low levels despite efforts by the oil industry to cut back production, efforts so far ineffective. A low price could work in favor of the rollbacks.

But that is only one of many unknown variables. The fate of the emission standard rollbacks, in 2019 and beyond, could be influenced by court decisions, Congressional investigations, Trump’s other legal troubles, conflict in the Middle East and other oil market disruptions. Also watch for the effects of technological advances such as batteries, trade negotiations and changes in the world market and U.S. economic situation.

Links to some good sources for covering this issue can be found in this SEJournal Online Backgrounder.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 3. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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