Resisting a Rollback of Emissions Standards
As ineffectual as this president appears, his Cabinet members are stealthily orchestrating destructive changes. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is intent on subverting that agency’s mission. At the behest of automakers, he is now reconsidering vehicular emission standards that help protect public health, save consumers money, and guard against further climate disruption.
The EPA and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently opened a review of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards for model years 2022-2025. The standards were updated in 2012 and 2007; before that, the country saw no meaningful increases in fuel efficiency for a quarter-century.
Raising fuel efficiency in vehicles offers far-reaching benefits, improving air quality (by limiting atmospheric particulates) and reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that destabilize Earth’s climate. Transportation contributes more of the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions than any other sector. In Maine, transportation accounts for 53 percent of CO2 emissions– far higher than electric power (10 percent), residential use (16 percent) or industrial use (12 percent).
Consumers like the demonstrated savings of higher fuel-efficiency standards. Even when gas prices are low, a strong majority prefers automakers to keep improving fuel economy (87 percent in a recent Consumers Union survey).
Targets set for the model years from 2017-2025 would save an estimated 2.4 million barrels of oil a day by 2030, and markedly lower what drivers spend annually on fuel. By 2025, a new vehicle could save the buyer an estimated $6,000 over its lifetime, even factoring in a higher purchase price.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration specifies by 2025 a combined average standard for passenger cars and light trucks just under 50 mpg. Vehicle window-sticker ratings run well below the CAFE standard, so average on-the-road economy would more likely be around 35 mpg.
No Effect on Sales
Since the 2012 standards were finalized, vehicle manufacturers have not only met but exceeded them without affecting sales. Like dutiful dieters, automakers trimmed excess weight (with lighter materials and smaller engines), achieving goals that once seemed daunting.
But then President Trump offered them an all-you-can eat buffet, promising to end “industry-killing regulations” (although there was no evidence the standards had done anything but encourage innovation).
Now automakers envision putting the “diet” on hold, spending a few more years lapping up the fat profits offered by large, gas-guzzling vehicles. This binge, though, could prove costly. Countries like India, Norway and France have already announced phaseouts of gas-only cars and the global marketplace is increasingly focused on low-emission vehicles. American automakers won’t remain competitive unless they hold to stringent standards.
If the EPA and NHSTA freeze or roll back emission standards, we will pay with every breath we take – especially here in the tailpipe state. “It would be an unfortunate step backward for Maine in particular,” notes Lance Boucher, director of public policy for the American Lung Association of Maine. Particulates and smog from large swaths of the Northeast end up here, contributing to some of the nation’s highest asthma rates. Any weakening or delay in the CAFE standards, the lung association asserts, will increase health threats to vulnerable populations like children, older Americans and those living with lung diseases.
Maine committed more than a decade ago to the strict emissions standards of California, but it cannot limit imported pollution if the federal uniform standard is dismantled. The Trump administration strategy, notes Dylan Voorhees, Climate and Clean Energy Project director with the Natural Resources Council of Maine, “is dismemberment piece by piece.” If the Trump Administration succeeds in its effort to undercut federal emissions standards, a decision to be made by next April, it might then challenge the right of states like California and Maine to maintain more stringent standards.
A ‘Meat-Ax’ Approach
What’s being proposed is not conventional regulatory reform. William D. Ruckelshaus, who directed the EPA under two previous Republican presidents, recently told the New York Times that Pruitt’s approach appears more like “taking a meat ax to the protections of public health and the environment and then hiding it.”
The attack on emission standards will face fierce and prolonged legal battles, but could still set back national efforts to rein in carbon emissions. A big concern, Voorhees reflects, is that “we don’t really have time to waste.”
Maine’s Sen. Edmund Muskie, lead architect of the Clean Air Act, once noted that he saw citizens losing confidence in their government’s capacity to “stop a disastrous retreat from the goal of environmental quality set so resolutely not so long ago.” That sentiment rings even truer today as we face a presidential administration bent on disassembling safeguards protecting human and planetary health.
Stopping this “disastrous retreat” depends on a strong chorus of protest from citizens, community leaders, environmental advocates and health care providers. Muskie’s clean air legacy is on the line, and he would certainly endorse activism: “Political power in our system,” he exhorted, “is still yours to use, if you will.”
© Marina Schauffler, 2017. All Rights Reserved. Column reprints available upon request.