August 17, 2018
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Rolling back fuel economy standards bad for our health and environment

Frank Franklin II | AP
Frank Franklin II | AP
Cars pass the Queensboro Bridge in New York, Jan. 11, 2018. The Trump administration is citing safety to justify freezing gas mileage requirements. A draft of a regulation prepared this summer would freeze an Obama-era program to improve fuel efficiency and cut pollution.

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Last week, the Trump administration took steps to weaken vehicle fuel economy standards and moved to revoke California’s authority to set standards that are higher than federal requirements. Thirteen states, including Maine, follow the higher California standards.

Both moves are unnecessary and, if fully implemented, would harm the health of many Americans while making them spend more on gasoline.

The administration has proposed to freeze increases in fuel economy standards in 2021. Under current rules, which were negotiated with the auto industry, unions and environmental groups, a typical car would need to go 36 miles on a gallon of gas by 2025, about 10 miles per gallon more than this year’s requirement. Standards are lower for trucks.

The Transportation Department and Environmental Protection Agency argue that a lower standard will save lives. Their logic seems to be that higher fuel economy standards make vehicles more expensive so Americans are continuing to driver older, less safe (and less fuel efficient) vehicles instead of buying newer, safer ones.

But improvements in safety components in cars have tracked with fuel economy standards. Today, new vehicles typically include back-up cameras, stability control, lane departure detection and many other safety features. As a result, the number of U.S. traffic fatalities, measured by miles traveled, has been dropping steadily, even as fuel economy standards have risen.

New safety features and navigation and communications systems add more to the cost of a new car than does the technology needed to improve fuel efficiency. This technology is not new. U.S. automakers are using it in other countries.

For example, American car makers sell cars in Europe that get between 40 and 60 miles per gallon and SUVs that get more than 50 miles per gallon. If they make these vehicles for the European market, they can make them for the U.S. market, too.

Further, if the Trump administration were truly concerned about the cost of new cars, it wouldn’t have slapped tariffs on steel and aluminium or threaten tariffs on automobiles imported to the United States. Such tariffs would add thousands of dollars to the cost of new vehicles, car makers have warned.

Easing fuel economy standards are also bad for our health and environment, which also costs us more money.

Vehicles are a top source of air pollution, including particulates, which are responsible for 30,000 premature deaths each year, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Requiring vehicles to go farther on a gallon of gasoline will reduce these and other emissions. It also means that fewer fossil fuels need to be extracted from beneath the earth or sea, another environmental benefit.

From a business perspective, easing gas mileage standards will reward the laggards among the auto industry while punishing car companies that are already making fuel efficient and electric vehicles. Companies, mostly foreign-owned, that already make vehicles that exceed U.S. standards can sell pollution credits to other automakers that are not meeting standards.

The past has shown that when fuel prices rise, the laggards will be ill prepared to meet consumer demand for more fuel efficient vehicles.

As Vox put it: “The weaker regulations will simultaneously help the dirtiest, hurt the cleanest, and derail years of tenuous progress in reducing environmental harm from a massive and growing source of pollution.”

This is a big step in the wrong direction.

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