Trump Finalizes Fuel Economy Rollback As COVID-19 Roils Auto Industry

Donald Trump has always touted his rollback of Obama-era fuel economy and tailpipe emissions standards as one of his proudest anti-regulatory achievements. Today, his administration finalizes his own lower targets, even as coronovirus brought the world auto industry to a screeching halt.

Elaine Chao, Trump’s transportation secretary, unveiled final rules requiring manufacturers of cars and trucks – the biggest-source of climate-warming pollution – to boost their average fuel economy by 1.5 percent annually for model years 2021-2026. Andrew Wheeler, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, joined Chao in the announcement.

 Their plan compares to the nearly 5.0 percent annual improvement Barack Obama negotiated with U.S. automakers and the state of California in 2012, and the 2.4 percent rate automakers say they’d achieve even if no regulations existed. 

 Obama in 2012 required automakers to boost their average fuel economy to 46.7 miles per gallon by 2025; under Trump’s rules, the target will be 40.4 mpg.  

 Separately, the Trump team also seeks to strip California and other states of their right to limit tailpipe greenhouse gases and to require electric cars to do so, even if Washington won’t.

 Today’s announcement reiterated the administration’s claim that the rollback would save lies and money by lowering the price of new vehicles by $1,000 on average, and thereby enabling more people to buy them. The rollback will save automakers $100 billion in regulatory costs, Chao said. The savings could help the companies withstand the current virus-induced economic shutdown, but exacerbate air pollution and climate change long term.

On Tuesday, Ford Motor Co. said key factories it had hoped to reopen by April 14 would remain closed. General Motors Co. said last week it’s delaying future product investments and deferring white-collar wages because of the virus.

But the rollback still faces two significant hurdles: whether Trump can win reelection and thereby block a Democratic successor from reinstating the Obama rules, and whether the president can fight off a barrage of lawsuits from environmental groups, California, and nearly two dozen other states.

  The first legal test could come soon if opponents ask the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals to issue a “stay” that would prevent the rollback from being implemented. Such a ruling would require the court to find that the suing parties are likely to prevail on the merits, said Ann Carlson, a University of California at Los Angeles law professor.

  To prevail, the administration will have to prove, among other things, that its assertion Tuesday that the rollback will save lives and money is accurate, Carlson wrote in a blog post last week. In February, a panel of scientists hired by the government itself concluded the scientific analysis underlying this claim contained “significant weaknesses.”

 At least some of the lawsuits could eventually find their way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the meantime, U.S. automakers could face a patchwork of emissions standards that vary from state to state. And they risk falling behind technically as automakers based overseas race to comply with toughening emissions standards in Asia and Europe.

 The Trump rollback comes at an awkward time since coronavirus, by shutting down transportation and other industries, is clearing the air in polluted cities worldwide – and saving more lives than the pandemic itself is claiming. 

 But the rollback is in keeping with Trump’s effort to stop the U.S. government from fighting climate change, and to scale back a broad array of other environmental measures. These include pulling out of the Paris climate accords, easing limits on oil and gas drilling in the Arctic and offshore, and relaxing restrictions on the emission of methane gas.

 In 2017, several automakers lobbied newly-elected Trump for a rollback, since cheap gasoline meant consumers could turn away from fuel-efficient cars and buy sports utilities and pickups in droves. 

 But in August, four automakers, including Ford and Honda Motor Co.m sided with California in its fight with Trump; GM and Toyota Motor Corp. joined forces with Trump.

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