CO2 would jump under Trump’s revised plan

Source: By Maxine Joselow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, November 5, 2019

 President Trump at the White House yesterday. Photo credit: Oliver Contreras/CNP/AdMedia / SplashNews/Newscom

President Trump at the White House yesterday. Oliver Contreras/CNP/AdMedia/SplashNews/Newscom

Rather than making a U-turn on clean car standards, President Trump is making a slight swerve, experts say.

At issue are recent reports that the Trump administration is considering a 1.5% annual increase in the stringency of fuel economy standards, which dictate how far cars can travel on a single tank of gasoline.

That’s more aggressive than the administration’s earlier proposal to freeze the standards at 2020 levels, which would have allowed cars to travel 29.1 mpg on average by 2025.

But it’s far less ambitious than the current standards, which were established under former President Obama and would require cars to travel 37.5 mpg on average by 2025.

When news of the 1.5% increase broke last week, many observers initially framed the development as dramatic and consequential. The Washington Post called it a “U-turn,” while another environmental journalist described it as a “shocking reversal.”

But according to experts, a 1.5% increase in fuel economy standards isn’t anything to get excited about. They say the modest increase would still do irreparable harm to the climate and consumers.

“A very weak 1.5%-per-year standard is insufficient to safeguard our air and planet. It’s not just a do-nothing plan on climate. It’s a plan to go backwards,” said Luke Tonachel, director of the Clean Vehicles and Fuels Group at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In a recent blog post, Tonachel sought to determine how a 1.5% annual increase in the gas mileage standards would affect greenhouse gas emissions and fuel consumption.

He found that a 1.5% increase would still cause planet-warming emissions to soar, with car tailpipes releasing an additional 634 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, rather than 809 million metric tons under a freeze scenario.

In addition, the analysis shows that a 1.5% increase would cause fuel consumption to spike, with car engines burning through an additional 57 billion gallons of oil, compared with an additional 73 billion gallons under the freeze scenario.

“It’s still a dramatic rollback,” Tonachel said. “Pollution will increase, and drivers will pay more at the pump.”

A recent analysis by Consumer Reports arrived at similar conclusions.

The CR team found that each American driver would spend an additional $3,200 at the gas pump under a 1.5% increase, compared with an additional $5,200 under a freeze. And cumulatively, all drivers in the country would spend an extra $300 billion at the pump, compared with an extra $460 billion under a freeze.

“Our numbers show that the 1.5% number is a small step in the right direction. But it’s still a massive rollback relative to what the existing standards are,” said Chris Harto, a senior policy analyst for transportation and energy at Consumer Reports and a co-author of the analysis.

“You know, Trump’s a negotiator, and he always starts at the very far end of what is possible,” Harto added. “So the [freeze] always kind of felt like the opening offer. And now he’s giving a tiny bit back. But it’s still terrible for consumers.”

Auto industry reaction

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a powerful trade association whose members include Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co., has repeatedly told the Trump administration that it opposes flat-lining the fuel economy standards.

Rather than a freeze, the Auto Alliance has consistently advocated for “year-over-year increases in fuel economy standards that align with the marketplace.”

“We’re pleased at the direction the administration is heading because we have told them many times that we know our customers expect continuing increases in fuel economy,” said Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Auto Alliance.

Still, Bergquist said auto manufacturers could have trouble complying with a 1.5% increase due to low electric vehicle sales. She noted that light trucks account for 71% of the market, while plug-in hybrid and battery-electric vehicles account for just 2%.

“Automakers have invested so heavily in electric vehicles, but their sales are still so low,” Bergquist said. “We have really become a light truck country. So 1.5% can still be very challenging for us because it’s based on consumer sales.”

Harto, of Consumer Reports, scoffed at the notion that automakers would have difficulty complying with a 1.5% increase in the United States, given the international momentum toward tighter tailpipe regulations.

“I can’t imagine it remotely being a challenge for any automaker who cares at all about meeting standards in other countries,” Harto said. “In Europe, Japan, China and all over the world there are tough standards that increase at rates comparable to what the existing U.S. standards are. And if they wanna sell cars in those countries, they’re gonna have to meet those increasing standards.”

Legal questions

It ultimately remains to be seen whether a 1.5% increase in fuel economy standards would survive the inevitable legal challenges from environmental groups and other critics.

Central to that question is whether the Trump administration can produce a sound cost-benefit analysis to justify the modest increase.

Career and political staffers at EPA and the Department of Transportation previously struggled to show that the benefits of freezing the fuel economy standards outweighed the costs, a person familiar with the matter previously confirmed to E&E News.

“I think it’s very telling and very significant that the proposed rule couldn’t pass a cost-benefit analysis,” said Sean Hecht, co-executive director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the UCLA School of Law.

“Agencies should not be backing into their cost-benefit analysis,” he said. “They should be making rules where it’s clear that the benefits outweigh the costs.”

Hecht also noted that a recent federal appeals court ruling increased the pressure on the Trump administration to justify any changes to the Obama-era fuel economy targets.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the Trump EPA must thoroughly explain its decision to scrap thousands of pages of technical analysis by the Obama EPA showing that the existing standards were achievable (Greenwire, Oct. 25).

“It seemed to me that the panel was trying to send a message to the Trump administration about how it needed to handle any changes,” Hecht said. “And it is true that the record at this point includes all of the prior determinations by the Obama administration. So the question here is, can they provide the evidentiary basis for the change?”