Op-Ed: Trump’s Fuel Efficiency Rollbacks Will Hurt Drivers

Source: By Paul Bledsoe, New York Times • Posted: Monday, May 14, 2018

A Los Angeles freeway in 2011. California said it would continue to enforce current emission standards, even if the federal rules are weakened.Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

President Trump met with auto industry executives at the White House on Friday, arguing for his planned rollback of fuel efficiency and emissions standards, and telling them he wanted them to build “millions more cars” in the United States.

Let’s assume they would. If they did, any cars they made would also be dirtier and more expensive for consumers to drive without the fuel efficiency and emissions rules that the president wants to discard.

How much more expensive? A draft proposal by the Trump administration that emerged in recent weeks would result in additional fuel costs of “$193 billion to $236 billion cumulatively between now and 2035” depending on oil prices, according to an analysis by the Rhodium Group, a research firm that examines the market impact of energy and climate policy.

And those higher gasoline costs are likely to hurt most the very families President Trump claims to care so much about — the ones living paycheck to paycheck.

The efficiency standards, begun under President Gerald Ford in 1975, require auto companies to increase the fuel economy of cars and light trucks by a small amount each year. Through 2015, they saved American motorists an estimated $3.8 trillion in gasoline costs, according to a study by the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee. In kitchen-table terms, the average American family saved as much as $17,000 in gasoline costs from 1980 to 2014 because of the standards, an analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists found.

The fuel efficiency and tailpipe emission standards targeted by Mr. Trump were designed by the Obama administration and require automakers to meet escalating efficiency standards: 41.7 miles per gallon by 2020, and 54.5 m.p.g. in 2025. (Those numbers represent laboratory measures; on the road, they are equivalent to about 32 and 42 m.p.g., respectively.)

A draft Trump plan would freeze the fuel efficiency standard at the 2020 target. The future efficiency losses would increase oil consumption in the United States by between 126,000 and 283,000 barrels a day in 2025, depending on oil prices. By 2035, daily consumption would be between 252,000 and 881,000 barrels higher, according to the Rhodium Group.

Los Angeles in 1975, the year that the administration of President Gerald Ford began requiring automakers to increase the fuel efficiency of cars and light trucks by a small amount each year.Ron Eisenbeg/Michael Ochs Archives, via Getty Images

The Environmental Protection Agency’s own assessment of the rules, published in January 2017, found that the 2025 mileage standard would result in $98 billion in net consumer benefits, mostly from reduced gasoline use, and that freezing the efficiency improvements would mean individual car buyers would lose a net savings of $1,650, even after considering higher vehicle costs. That’s nearly what middle-class families are expected to get from the president’s tax cut over two years.

The auto industry itself, no fan of regulation, is split over the proposed rollback, with major companies like Honda and Toyota supporting a gradual rise in standards. This is not surprising, since data shows that the industry has been able to comply nearly 100 percent with the standards through increased engine efficiencies at little net cost to consumers.

Even companies like Ford, whose fleet is made up of larger vehicles, say their priority is only more certainty in the rules between what the federal government mandates and what California requires for tailpipe emissions. Sixteen other states and the District of Columbia that have adopted California’s standard.

“We are not asking the administration for a rollback,” Ford Chairman Bill Ford saidthe day before the White House meeting. “We want California at the table and we want one national standard.”

Currently, California’s emissions standards match the federal requirements. But California and the other states, which represent 43 percent of the American auto market, have said they will continue to enforce the current standards even if the federal rules are weakened. The administration has threatened to revoke a waiver California was granted under the Clean Air Act to impose stricter air pollution regulations on cars and trucks.

President Trump is pushing to reduce fuel efficiency requirements just as global oil prices rise from $50 a barrel to over $70 — in part because the oil markets are nervous about the president’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.

“The national gas price average is 45 cents more expensive than a year ago,” at $2.81, according to AAA. “With the unofficial kickoff to summer just weeks away, prices are expected to increase.”

Given rising oil and gasoline prices, fuel efficiency would seem to be a worthy goal, both for consumers and the environment.

Paul Bledsoe is strategic adviser and energy fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, and a lecturer at American University’s Center for Environmental Policy. He served on the White House Climate Change Task Force under President Clinton.