Week 80: Making Cars Dirty Again

Trump rolls back fuel efficiency standards while his EPA chief celebrates the country’s clean air (achieved by past administrations).

August 03, 2018

Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.

Frank Duenzl/Newscom

Hot Air Bags

The Trump administration has released its long-expected rollback of the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards, which set the minimum average miles per gallon for a manufacturer’s fleet of vehicles. For passenger cars, the Obama administration set a goal of 43.7 miles per gallon for 2020 and 54.5 mpg by 2024. (Those are laboratory values, which translate into slightly lower numbers on actual roads.) Under the new Trump plan, the standards will freeze at the 2020 levels.

The administration’s rationale for freezing CAFE standards is based on some odd assumptions. The claim is that if you make new cars more expensive by mandating better fuel efficiency, people are less likely to buy new cars. If people continue driving their older vehicles, which have fewer safety features than new cars, they’re more likely to die in car crashes.

That weaker fuel standards would make for safer automobile accidents is highly questionable, to say the least, but here’s something that’s not debatable: Tailpipe emissions kill people. Air pollution overall kills an estimated 7 million people worldwide each year, and cars are responsible for a huge proportion of urban air pollution. Gradually tightening fuel standards prevents those deaths. Climate change is also a deadly problem, particularly in the developing world, and improving automotive fuel economy would help mitigate it.

We could get a bunch of experts together (economists, climatologists, epidemiologists, automotive safety engineers, the guys from MythBusters) and try to prove that the lives saved (if any) by a possible improvement in crashworthiness would outweigh the lives extended by decreased pollution and climate change mitigation. But Trump administration officials didn’t bother to do that. They just speculated that freezing the standards might improve the part of the equation they prefer—the crash fatalities. They never even considered the impacts on public health.

Before its current flimsy argument for the CAFE rollback, the administration had another: that fuel-efficient cars are lighter and therefore less safe in crashes. When experts pointed out that this was nonsense—lighter cars also reduce the kinetic energy of a collision, and therefore don’t necessarily increase crash fatalities—the administration simply shifted to its next argument about frugal Americans being reluctant to buy new models (which would end up saving them money on gas). The administration is making up reasons that match their decisions, rather than the other way around. That’s junk science.

The State Department Changes Course on KXL

The State Department this week issued a new draft environmental assessment of TransCanada’s plan to build the Keystone XL pipeline. Construction has been stalled for years, in part because the Canadian company failed to win approval for any of its proposed routes through Nebraska. But the State Department report says there’s nothing to worry about—the latest Nebraska route will have only minor impacts on water resources, biological resources, and air quality.

Once again the administration has made up the facts to fit its predetermined policy preference. President Trump decided to approve the Keystone XL before he even took office, and he formally approved the pipeline in March 2017. At the time of his decision, the State Department’s environmental review was three years old—and based on an entirely different pipeline route.

The new review ignores the pipeline’s threats to groundwater and sensitive environmental areas, even though we recently were reminded of how a tar sands oil pipeline can impact the environment. Another TransCanada pipeline, Keystone I, spilled 210,000 gallons of crude onto South Dakota farmland in November, just a few days before the Nebraska Public Service Commission narrowly approved the new route for Keystone XL. (That approval remains tied up in court challenges.)

The State Department’s new report also finds that the pipeline—which would facilitate the extraction of tar sands oil, the world’s most carbon-intensive fossil fuel—would not significantly contribute to climate change. That’s diametrically opposed to the conclusion in the 2014 State Department report, which explained that sustained oil prices of less than $75 per barrel would speed tar sands consumption and turn the Keystone XL pipeline into a significant climate change contributor. We’ve seen historically low prices since the report issued that warning—the price of oil plunged below $50 in late 2014, and it hasn’t risen above $75. It’s not entirely clear why the State Department has pulled this climate change about-face. Maybe it has something to do with the climate in the oval office?

Past Performance Not Indicative of Future Returns

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released its annual air quality report this week, touting a 73 percent reduction in major air pollutants between 1970 and 2017. “The U.S. leads the world in terms of clean air and air quality progress,” crowed acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler.

First, that’s simply not true. At least six countries have better air quality than the United States, according to data from the International Energy Agency and the World Health Organization, and some of those countries are major industrialized nations, like Sweden and Australia. In fact, you only have to look across our northern border to find a country with superior air quality.

Second, the 47-year period of air quality improvement cited by Wheeler was the result of decades of hard-fought political battles. I say “was” because the Trump administration marks, if not an end, then certainly a pause in this era of environmental progress. While Wheeler is admiring the work of past administrations in one breath, he’s trying to undo it in the next by freezing automotive fuel efficiency standards, undoing the Clean Power Plan, and allowing oil and natural gas producers to emit smog-forming chemicals with impunity.

Whatever leadership position the United States has on clean air is in peril. Check out Berkeley Earth’s real-time map of air quality at any given moment, and you’ll see the United States is basically on par with large swaths of Europe. But while we freeze or reverse our emissions rules, Europe is moving forward. In January, the European Commissioner for the Environment ordered several countries to develop plans to improve air quality. The United Kingdom has already announced major steps to reduce nitrogen dioxide levels, and Germany has granted its cities the right to ban diesel cars.

“I inherited a mess” is President Trump’s favorite excuse for his many failures. This week’s report shows the opposite is true: Trump inherited clean air. He’ll leave a mess behind.

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch or following it on Facebook or Twitter.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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