Trump administration scraps Obama fuel-efficiency standard, opts for laxer rule

WASHINGTON  –  The Trump administration proposes a modest increase in fuel-efficiency standards for new cars and light trucks, scrapping a more aggressive Obama-era rule aimed at curbing the planet’s largest source of carbon emissions, which contribute to climate change.

The Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles rule applies to most passenger vehicles for model years 2021 through 2026. Administration officials who unveiled the rule Tuesday said it will save hundreds of lives each year by encouraging families to buy newer cars that have the latest safety features because they’ll be more affordable when freed from meeting tougher standards.

“This rule reflects the Department’s No. 1 priority – safety – by making newer, safer, cleaner vehicles more accessible for Americans who are, on average, driving 12-year old cars,” U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao told reporters on a conference call.

The final rule will increase stringency of Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) and CO2 emissions standards by 1.5% each year through model year 2026, compared with the standards issued in 2012 under President Barack Obama, which would have required about 5% annual increases over that period.

Carbon emissions contribute to climate change.

In effect, the standard will require cars and light trucks to average roughly 40 miles per gallon by 2025, down from about 50 miles per gallon under the Obama rule, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The regulation was revised from last summer when the Trump administration proposed freezing the standards. Officials said they adjusted the proposal to include a “realistic and achievable” increase after receiving more than 700,00 comments from the industry and the public.

Officials said it would shave about $1,000 from the roughly $38,000 sticker price of a new passenger vehicle compared with the Obama rule

Democratic lawmakers and environmental advocates slammed the change as a further gutting of Obama-era efforts to slow the effects of climate change, which the Trump administration acknowledges as contributing to rising sea levels, worsening droughts and intensifying hurricanes.

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Obama, in a tweet after Tuesday’s announcement, compared the decision to adopt a modest revision to the administration’s response to the unfolding coronavirus pandemic, which critics blasted as sluggish and late.

“We’ve seen all too terribly the consequences of those who denied warnings of a pandemic,” Obama tweeted. “We can’t afford any more consequences of climate denial.”

Trump administration officials said the SAFE Vehicles Rule reflects the realities of today’s markets, including substantially lower oil prices than in the original 2012 projection, significant increases in U.S. oil production and growing consumer demand for larger vehicles.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the new rule will help clean air by encouraging Americans to drive newer, more fuel-efficient vehicles. The average age of cars and light trucks on the road is 12 years, compared with eight years in 1990, he said.

“The lack of fleet turnover creates a host of problems, the most important of which is passenger safety,” he said. “Newer vehicles will be better for the environment than the ones that they replace.”

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Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said the new rule will lead to more greenhouse gas emissions, more premature deaths and higher consumer costs as a result of driving cars that burn more gas than they would have under the Obama standard.

“Adding hundreds of dollars to the cost of each vehicle would seem to be the opposite of the more ‘Affordable’ vehicles the SAFE rule promised,” Carper’s office said in a news release.

Last year, the administration’s proposed freeze touched off a huge legal fight with California, which has authority under the Clean Air Act to set its own greenhouse gas emissions, and by extension, gas mileage standards. Trump revoked California’s authority, and the state challenged the decision in court. 

The auto industry split on the matter: Four companies – Ford, BMW, Volkswagen and Honda – sided with California. Most other automakers went with Trump.

Contributing: Todd Spangler, Nathan Bomey, USA TODAY Network; The Associated Press

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