Trump promised his mileage standards would make cars cheaper and safer. New documents raise doubts about that.

Source: By Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis, Washington Post • Posted: Thursday, January 23, 2020

Top Senate Democrat argues that revised rule “will lead to vehicles that are neither safer, nor more affordable or fuel-efficient.”

Traffic backs up in July on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge toll plaza along Interstate 80. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Traffic backs up in July on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge toll plaza along Interstate 80. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

President Trump has said his plan to weaken federal mileage standards would make cars cheaper and “substantially safer.” But the administration’s own analysis suggests that it would cost consumers more than it would save them in the long run, and would do little to make the nation’s roads safer.

The revised Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles rule, which has not been released publicly, would require automakers to increase the average fuel efficiency of the nation’s fleets by 1.5 percent per year between model years 2021 and 2026. Rules put in place by the Obama administration, by comparison, require a nearly 5 percent annual increase.

If finalized, the proposal would mandate more progress on fuel efficiency than the Trump administration’s initial effort to freeze fuel standards in the years ahead. But the new analysis, outlined in a letter Wednesday by Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), projects that the benefits of Trump’s proposed rollback would not significantly outweigh the costs. Trump’s approach would lower the sticker price of new cars, according to the documents, but drivers would spend more at the gas pump over time by driving less efficient vehicles.

Writing to a top OMB official, Carper said that the latest draft proposal from the Transportation Department and the Environmental Protection Agency “would dramatically weaken future vehicle fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards, without providing the purported safety or economic benefits that were touted by the Trump administration.”

“In short, the SAFE Vehicles rule, if finalized in its present form, will lead to vehicles that are neither safer, nor more affordable or fuel-efficient,” wrote Carper, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “I urge you to require EPA and DOT to abandon these efforts entirely.”

The Trump administration has pressed ahead with rolling back the first-ever limits on autos’ carbon emissions, one of the federal government’s most sweeping climate policies. The Obama administration worked with California regulators and the auto industry to craft ambitious national standards, arguing that requiring more fuel-efficient vehicles would improve public health, combat climate change and save consumers money without compromising safety.

The EPA had projected that the original standards would avoid 6 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions between 2009 and 2025 — more than the total amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the United States in 2010.

Trump administration officials have declined to comment on the pending rule. The EPA on Wednesday referred inquiries to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and officials there could not be reached for comment. In a statement earlier this month, NHTSA reiterated that the rule had not yet been finalized but wrote that the “EPA and NHTSA firmly believe this rule will benefit all Americans by improving the U.S. fleet’s fuel economy, reducing air pollution, helping make new vehicles more affordable for all Americans.”

The administration’s proposal would relax requirements put in place under the Obama administration to combat carbon emissions that fuel global warming. Under the new plan, the nation’s fleet of cars and light trucks would reach an average mileage of 40.5 miles per gallon by model year 2026, compared with nearly 51 mpg in 2025 under current rules.

Along with his deputies, Trump has consistently said that rolling back the Obama-era standards would save lives, as well as money. “My proposal to the politically correct Automobile Companies would lower the average price of a car to consumers by more than $3000, while at the same time making the cars substantially safer,” Trump tweeted in August.

But the administration’s latest analysis appears to scale back those projections, which argued that if the Obama-era targets remained in effect, people would hang on to older cars rather than purchasing newer, safer cars. These assumptions came under sharp criticism not only from environmental groups, but also from the EPA’s own Scientific Advisory Board, which called them “implausible” in a report drafted this summer.

In a teleconference on Wednesday, Peter Wilcoxen, a Syracuse University professor who chaired the group of scientific advisers, told his colleagues that the original proposal’s cost and benefit projections stemmed from flawed assumptions. “The core justification does not rely on a sound scientific basis,” he said.

In August 2018, administration officials projected that their proposal would avert up to 12,000 crash fatalitiesover the lifetime of vehicles affected by the rule. Using a new set of assumptions, the new rule would prevent a little more than 470 deaths.

Officials now estimate that the rollback would lower the average sticker price by about $1,000, Carper noted, but drivers would pay more than $1,400 in additional gas costs over the lifetime of those vehicles. The rule also would cost at least $34 billion more than it would produce in benefits over those vehicles’ lifetimes, he added.

“This would seem to fly in the face of rational rulemaking, which requires the benefits to exceed the costs, not the other way around,” Carper wrote.

Jeff Alson, a former senior EPA engineer who spent a decade working on the agency’s tailpipe rules, said in an interview that the Trump administration appears to have addressed some problems in its initial draft. But he added that requiring only a 1.5 percent mileage increase each year is “still a major rollback.”

The average fuel efficiency of the U.S. car and light truck fleet increased about 2.4 percent annually between 2005 and 2016.

“They have been shamed into correcting some of the most egregious errors. But the question is: How many errors did they correct?” Alson said.

The latest step in the White House effort to scale back fuel standards comes amid a simmering standoff between the Trump administration and California, which for decades has been allowed to legally pursue more aggressive environmental requirements for vehicles.

Under Trump, the White House has taken aim at that right, which dates back half a century. In September, the administration detailed plans to revoke California’s autonomy, marking the latest in a broad effort to undermine Obama-era policies aimed at cutting greenhouse gases.

Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have said they will follow California’s more stringent standards, as have several major automakers. In November, California and 22 other states sued to block the White House’s attempt to strip the state’s authority to set its own fuel-efficiency standards.

The auto industry has found itself split along the way, with some companies crafting a deal with California last summer and others siding with the Trump administration in its high-stakes legal fight with the state.

“While we have not seen the final rule, automakers continue to support year-over-year increases in fuel economy standards, and we support a unified program as the best path forward,” John Bozzella, president of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, an industry group, said in a statement. “A clear and consistent program preserves good auto jobs, promotes the most efficient advanced vehicle technologies and keeps new vehicles affordable for more Americans.”

Now that the Transportation Department and the EPA have submitted their proposal to the OMB, White House officials will solicit comment from other agencies before finalizing the rule.