PennFuture Blog

Our Perspectives on the Latest Issues

Trump's Proposed Car Emissions Rollback Would Prevent States from Protecting Citizens

This blog post originally appeared as an opinion piece published in Harrisburg's PennLive on Aug. 11.

Transportation emissions now surpass electric generation as the largest source of carbon pollution in the United States. But with millions of gas guzzling vehicles on the road and car culture so ingrained in society, reducing these emissions is difficult. To continue addressing this complicated problem, President Barack Obama worked with automakers in 2012 to negotiate a cost-effective increase in vehicle efficiency standards that would cut carbon and reduce gasoline consumption, while keeping our automobile industry competitive. 

The automakers agreed with the new efficiency standards at the time, but they have seen an opportunity to cut a new deal under the Trump Administration. Trump quickly acquiesced to the automakers’ requests, and his EPA has rushed out a proposed rollback under the Orwellian title, “The Safer and Affordable Fuel Efficient Vehicles Proposed Rule for Model Years 2021-2026.” This new regulation would freeze federal fuel economy standards at 2020 levels and keep states from protecting their citizens with higher standards.

Unbelievably, this rollback goes well beyond what the automakers initially asked for. Bill Ford of Ford Motor Company recently said they “support increasing clean car standards through 2025 and are not asking for a rollback.” He went on to say that Ford “believe[s] we must deliver on CO2 reductions consistent with the Paris Climate Accord.” What the automakers wanted was some added flexibility in compliance, but what they got was a ham-fisted attempt at eliminating agreed-to standards that would have led to affordable cars that are the cleanest in our automakers’ history.

This new move is impossible to justify along any economic, public health, good governance, engineering, or scientific lines of argument. The EPA already determined in 2017 that existing standards are achievable by the auto industry and the technologies to meet the standards already exist -- the European Union requires even higher standards. We also know that repealing the standards will result in lower gas mileage that could cost drivers more than $2,000 at the pump over the life of their vehicles. The Trump plan will also increase foreign imports of oil by millions of gallons, add millions of tons of carbon pollution to the air, and increase asthma-causing and smog-forming pollutants.

EPA Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation Bill Wehrum gives a tortured justification for this action. He claims that not having to meet new pollution standards will save the automakers money. He then assumes that automakers will pass the savings on to consumers; that the savings will make enough difference that people will buy newer and safer cars; and, safer cars will, in turn, mean fewer fatalities in car accidents. So, he argues, we have to make drivers pay more at the pump, import more foreign oil, and damage the environment for “safety” reasons. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who is one of 19 state attorneys general who have announced that they will challenge this action, put it plainly saying, “The data and science do not back up what they’re trying to do.” 

Attorney General Shapiro is right to challenge this regulation. The Commonwealth has long since opted to protect its citizens and the environment with fuel efficiency standards that are stronger than the minimum federal requirements--this new rule takes away that option. Instead, we will be forced to accept a one-size-fits-all federal rule that assumes our automakers can’t make cars as clean and efficient as other countries are already making.

States normally have significant authority to regulate pollution inside their borders, but there are cases where federal law prohibits states from creating their own rules. Almost everyone agrees that forcing auto manufacturers to create different versions of each model-year car to comply with up to 50 different state fuel efficiency rules would be expensive and create logistical problems. So, when Congress passed the Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act in 1965, it added Section 209 to the Clean Air Act (CAA) that typically prevents states from creating their own vehicle emissions standards.

There is one important exception though: California was already regulating vehicle emissions before the EPA, so the CAA doesn’t take that power away. Instead, if California determines that their standards are at least as stringent as the federal standards; the EPA is obligated to waive Section 209 unless it has an acceptable reason not to. Once California receives that waiver, other states like Pennsylvania can legally opt-in to California’s standards--that is what Pennsylvania, along with thirteen other states and the District of Columbia, have done.

Everyone would probably prefer a single national standard, and the Obama administration’s emissions guidelines were a major step in that direction, but not all states face the same problems. Pennsylvania, with more than 100 billion miles of vehicle travel every year, has more than 20 times the vehicle usage than a state like Alaska. We also have many more citizens living in communities with poor air quality. It makes sense that states like Pennsylvania have the right to adopt more stringent standards to protect their citizens, and that’s just what we did.

If the Trump administration succeeds in withdrawing the California waiver, that also takes the choice away from Pennsylvania. Not only is the President not listening to the auto manufacturers, he’s also ignoring the needs of our communities.  

Get the Latest onOur PennFuture

Sign up for email updates on the latest news, events, and opportunities to make a difference.

Sign Up