Fuel Economy Standards Rollback: Worst Environmental Decision Yet

By Daniel Brown

Update: The public comment period is now open. You can oppose the emissions rollbacks here.

The Trump administration has made several decisions that threaten the environment and prioritize corporate profits above the health of our kids and wildlife. The legacy of the Trump administration is already well-established as one of the worst, if not the worst, environmental administrations in modern U.S. history.

But the move to freeze and effectively reverse fuel efficiency standards for cars will be this administration’s single most destructive environmental decision to date. It will make it a virtual certainty that the U.S. will not meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, that we will continue to emit heat-trapping carbon at a rapid rate, and that the planet will continue to warm. Because the United States is the second largest carbon emitter and largest per capita by far, this disastrous political maneuver also puts the future health of other countries at risk.

Heat-trapping carbon, released into the atmosphere through our burning of gasoline and other fossil fuels, is permanent. It will continue to warm the planet and lead to greater harm for the foreseeable future. The damage carbon emissions do to the atmosphere cannot be nursed back to recovery like an endangered species pushed to the brink of extinction. It cannot be cleaned and restored as a river might be, and it doesn’t regrow over generations as an irresponsibly clear-cut forest does. Carbon is forever. The Trump administration’s rollback will likely increase carbon emissions 11% by 2035. That’s moving in the wrong direction.

Not Just Bad for the Environment, But for the Economy

The move will also make cars sold in the United States more expensive to operate, costing all Americans $450 billion through 2050. This is especially true for light-duty trucks and large-engine road vehicles, where saving even a single mile per gallon represents a major change in efficiency over time. Farmers, already stretched by the fallout from Trump’s tariffs, will be spending much more to fill up their trucks. Compared to 1975, cars and light-duty vehicles are now about twice as fuel efficient. For a given tank of gas, you can go about twice as far, and your gas bill is about half of what it would have been. In total, that increased efficiency has saved Americans about $4 trillion dollars.

But that savings is not just in dollars. Greater fuel efficiency also simply saves fuel, a critical commodity. American fuel efficiency improvements translate into about 1.5 trillion gallons of gas saved–a staggering number. For comparison, that’s enough gas to power every car and light-duty truck currently on the road for the next 10 years. When properly managed, that saved fuel is a major benefit to national security and disaster preparedness.

The decision to roll back the fuel efficiency standards will also give foreign automakers that design cars primarily for rational, fuel-efficient markets worldwide a distinct advantage. We have seen this effect in the past. Fuel efficiency was a major reason for the rapid domestic market shift toward more fuel-efficient Japanese brands in the 1980s and 90s. American car companies will be forced to create a greater number of models, optimize designs differently for different markets, and will be less competitive overall.

The proposed changes to vehicle emissions standards would halt our recent strides in efficiency. Photo credit: Kevin Payravi

Fighting Back Against Bad Policy

The move by the Trump administration to freeze fuel efficiency standards and attack California’s authority under the Clean Air Act to follow stricter guidelines has no rational basis. It was presented based on fabricated rationale that is simply, demonstrably false. It has no apparent benefit for anyone except for one industry: Big Oil. It’s bad for consumers, bad for our kids, bad for the environment, bad for the economy, and bad for national security. It has left many on both sides of the aisle scratching their heads. Governor Baker, among other Republicans, has announced his opposition to repealing the rule.

There is room for hope. A legal battle will ensue with California, Massachusetts and other states* that follow California’s lead in setting stricter car emission standards. California’s standards currently apply to about 35% percent of the U.S. automobile market, and as of yesterday, 16 states already filed suit to block changes to the fuel efficiency rules (20 states announced their intent).

States in the U.S. Climate Alliance (which includes 16 states and Puerto Rico) that have not yet adopted California’s standards could do so, and the Massachusetts delegation could encourage those states to act quickly. With more states following California’s lead, the administration’s questionable arguments grow thinner. Governor Baker has already spoken out against the proposal, stating that his administration plans to work “across borders to seek solutions and adopt best practices to further protect the health of our residents, combat climate change and build the transportation system of tomorrow.”

This environmentally-destructive action of the Trump administration is yet another call to action. It will require us to be leaders as individuals, setting an example among our own families and neighborhoods, demonstrating that we can save gas the way our forebears did, by walking more, biking more, taking the T, and driving less.

As a Commonwealth, we will need to take an even greater lead in making sure the cars on our roads emit as little as possible and that we continue to meet the goals of the Global Warming Solutions Act. With or without federal mandate, we must honor our commitment to protect the climate for future generations.

*The other states and territories that have adopted the California standards are: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and District of Columbia.

Daniel Brown is Mass Audubon’s Climate Change Program Coordinator