A Solution Looking for a Problem

It now seems certain that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) intends to rollback fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks.

Fuel efficiency standards and how they are calculated is complicated, but suffice it to say that the rule in question required passenger cars to average 50 miles per gallon by 2025. This rule was established by the EPA during the Obama Administration and was intended to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases linked to climate change. i.e., global warming. The automakers opposed the rule at the time, but they have made steady technological progress toward achieving it, which helps consumers and the environment.

During his campaign Trump denied climate change and promised the EPA would rollback rules related to climate change. This he did regarding coal-fired power plants, one of the worst polluters, even though the plants were already fast disappearing due to market forces. Shortly after he took office, Trump met with automakers and promised them relief from the fuel efficiency standard. The new rule will freeze standards at the 2020 level.  According to Trump, this will save jobs in the auto industry. It is not at all clear how making less fuel efficient vehicles saves jobs.

When the rollback occurs there will be a monumental legal battle with California and the 12 states that use California’s pollution standards. California has special status under the 1970 Clean Air Act. For those of us old enough to remember, in the 1960s and 1970s California was facing a crisis caused by air pollution (smog) related to exhaust emissions. California, in a political bargain, was given the right to adopt standards that were more stringent in order to address its air pollution problems. Therefore, for the last 50 years California has exercised its legal right to require automakers selling cars and trucks in California to meet its standards.  Because California is such a large and lucrative market, California’s standards have become the de facto standard because automakers don’t want to manufacture separate vehicles for different markets.

According to media reports, meetings and negotiations have taken place in an attempt to avoid the inevitable high stakes legal showdown that could have horrible repercussions for the automakers and the environment. Those negotiations failed. Why? It seems most likely true that it all boils down to politics and personal vendettas. Without getting into too much detail, suffice it to say that:

  1.      Trump and a substantial number of his party tend to disbelieve climate science;
  2.      Less fuel efficient cars and trucks burn more fossil fuel;
  3.      Many of Trump’s biggest corporate backers are fossil fuel companies;
  4.      Scott Pruitt, Administrator of the EPA, is from Oklahoma, a true friend to the oil and gas industry, and an                adamant “climate science denier”;
  5.      The EPA standard in question was created during the Obama Administration and Trump hates Obama;
  6.      California leans heavily toward the Democratic Party;
  7.      The Governor of California is Democrat Jerry Brown;
  8.      Trump was trounced in California;
  9.      Trump and Brown strongly dislike each other personally; and,
  10.      Trump believes he has a 5 to 4 advantage in the U.S. Supreme Court.

In one of those “be careful what you wish for” situations, automakers are now speaking out in favor of more stringent standards. Bill Ford, Jr. , executive chairman of Ford Motor Company, said, “We support increasing car standards through 2025, and are not asking for a rollback.” The automakers don’t want to risk California winning the coming litigation and, like most businesses, they loathe uncertainty and want to make a deal.  Will this make any difference? Almost certainly not.

Photo Credit: Ralf Kunze