May 22, 2019
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Stalling fuel economy standards won’t save lives. Keeping them in place will.

Frank Franklin II | AP
Frank Franklin II | AP
In this Jan. 11, 2018, file photo, cars pass the Queensboro Bridge in New York. 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.

When it proposed to weaken fuel economy standards for cars and trucks, the Trump administration said the move would save lives. This left many experts scratching their heads.

With good reason. It turns out the life-saving claims were false. Staff at the Environmental Protection Agency warned that the safety claims were overstated, but that didn’t stop the acting head of the agency, Andrew Wheeler, from touting those claims as a primary reason for slowing progress toward more fuel-efficient vehicles.

It comes as no surprise that the Trump administration distorts information and lies. Although it is routine, it is not normal and should not be acceptable.

Because it is based on faulty safety data, the proposed rollback should be scrapped. If the administration doesn’t do so voluntarily, Congress should exercise its oversight responsibility and, if the administration wants to move ahead with rule changes, ensure that they are based on accurate data and science.

In the meantime, the new revelations strengthen California’s case that it should continue to set its own standards, which Maine should continue to follow.

Earlier this month, 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.

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.

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

Now, it turns out, they are also based on faulty assertions about safety.

In announcing the proposal, the Transportation Department and Environmental Protection Agency argued 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.

Memos from scientists at the EPA, however, warned that the safety analysis, done by the Transportation Department, had many flaws. For one, its projections for how many more miles people would drive if cars were more fuel efficient were “wildly inflated,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Its claims that millions of old cars would remain on the road were also wrong, the EPA warned.

The “proposed standards are detrimental to safety, rather than beneficial,” William Charmley, director of the assessments and standards division of the EPA’s office of transportation and air quality, said in a June 18 interagency email, the Associated Press reported.

If the Trump administration wants to save lives — and save Americans money — it would leave the fuel economy standards alone. 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.

American car makers can meet the higher standards; they are doing so 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.

The current plans to continue to raise fuel economy standards will save drivers money and improve air quality, which will really save lives. There is no reason to abandon them.

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