Wrong Driver, Wrong Road

Donald Trump has acquired several nicknames since he decided to run for president, but the one he most deserves today is “President Pollution”. With the help of a willing Congress, he is presiding over the biggest rollback of federal regulations in a generation. This week’s rollback involves the tailpipe emissions from our cars and pickups.

During Trump’s first year in office, his Administration scaled back, reversed or attempted to reverse more than 60 environmental rules ranging from protection for whales to anti-dumping regulations for coal companies. Whether killing a regulation is good or bad depends on the benefits and costs of the regulation. But Trump’s criteria seem to be whether a) the Obama Administration developed the rule or b) oil industry CEOs and shareholders might lose money.

To understand the consequences of this week’s decision, a little background is in order. Tailpipe emissions from today’s vehicles include particulates that can cause illness or death from heart disease, asthma or lung cancer. They also include CO2, the pollutant most responsible for global climate change, a crisis that is no less real because Trump does not recognize it.

To reduce these pollutants, the Obama team worked with automakers to upgrade the federal government’s standard for fuel efficiency in cars and light trucks. The standard, called the Corporate Average Fuel Economy rule (CAFÉ) would require automakers to achieve a fleet-wide average of 54.5 miles per gallon (mpg) for cars and light trucks by 2025.

CO2 pollution from vehicles now exceeds that from power plants in the United States. Besides improving public health, an aggressive CAFÉ requirement is the next big opportunity to reduce the pollution most responsible for the changes we are seeing in the climate. But with Trump at the wheel, EPA has decided that the Obama standard is “not appropriate” — in other words, too ambitious. The practical result of putting the CAFÉ standard in reverse is that cars and trucks will be allowed to expel more pollution, including CO2.

A Wrong-Headed Regression

There is not enough space to list all that is wrong with that conclusion, but here are a few examples:

  1. Although air quality has improved in the United States — largely as a result of federal regulation under the Clean Air Act — more than 125 million Americans are still exposed to unhealthy levels of pollution from power plants and vehicles. Aggressive but achievable cuts in vehicle emissions should be one of America’s next public health priorities, as well as a public safety and national security priority to reduce climate-changing CO2.
  2. A higher CAFE requirement would help offset the trend of  increased driving. Nearly one-third of the United States’ CO2 pollution came from gasoline and diesel fuel in 2016. We have 5% of the world’s population but 20% of its automobiles. In 2015, cars, motorcycles, trucks and buses in the U.S. drove more than 3 trillion miles, equivalent to more than 16,000 round trips to the sun. And over the next 25 years, Americans are expected to drive 23% more miles each year.
  3. Rolling back the CAFE standard will be seen as one more slap at the effort by all other nations to reduce their pollution. Every gallon of gasoline we use produces nearly 20 pounds of CO2 and every gallon of combusted diesel fuel produces more than 22 pounds. As the world’s richest economy and its No. 2 source of CO2, the United States has no acceptable excuse for allowing vehicles to produce more pollution.
  4. We’ve been in the gas trap enough times to know better. Some automakers and dealers argue that consumers are happy with less-efficient cars and trucks now that gas prices are relatively low. As if to prove the point, large SUVs and light trucks are “enjoying a post-recession revival”, according to Bloomberg. It’s a Groundhog Day cycle. Gas prices go down, consumers buy more gas-guzzlers, gas prices go up again and consumers find their budgets strained by an oil price shock. Whether it’s bad weather that shuts down refineries or the manipulation of oil prices by other nations, today’s happy muscle-car owner will be tomorrow’s cash-poor driver.
  5. Higher emission-reduction goals can make vehicles less expensive over the time we own them. Carmakers argue that the 54.5 mpg goal would increase the price of the average vehicle by $3,000, preventing millions of Americans from buying new cars or light trucks. The result, they say, would be that older, less-efficient vehicles would remain on the road. But the sticker price is a shallow and inaccurate way to judge the price of owning a vehicle. A more accurate method is to count all the costs of operating the vehicle over the years we drive it, including fuel, insurance, maintenance and deprecation. To cite one example, using this life-cycle cost method and based on five years of operation at 15,000 miles per year, Edmunds’ estimates that the true cost of owning a 2013 Yukon Denali Hybrid SUV with a conventional eight-cylinder engine would be $6,400 more than owning the same SUV with a hybrid engine.

The Right’s Slippery Slope Argument

Far-right talk show hosts have stoked fears for years that higher CAFÉ standards are the first step in government confiscation of the SUVs and powerful pickup trucks many Americans need for their work, that other Americans drive to compensate for some real or perceived personal deficiency, and that some of us own in case we need to pull a freight train someday or to climb a mountain without the luxury of pavement.

But in my experience, few environmentalists think that we Americans will give up our love affair with muscle cars and big pickups. Vehicles powered by electricity, biofuels, hydrogen and other non-petroleum fuels show that cars can be close to our hearts without gasoline running through our veins. And when it comes to public health and climate change, the immediate problem is not the power or size of the vehicle; it’s  how much gasoline or diesel fuel the vehicle guzzles.

We have the technologies to produce more efficient cars and trucks without sacrificing style, power, comfort or safety. President Obama assumed correctly that setting a high efficiency standard would inspire more American innovation, create more jobs, and make us a constructive force in fighting climate change.

Instead, President Pollution is driving us down a road to more dirty emissions, more respiratory diseases, higher household expenses, more violent weather, more economic recessions triggered by oil-price shocks and more disdain from the international community. It is a dead end. Maybe Trump can’t read the signs, maybe he doesn’t care, or maybe he’s paying too much attention to the lobbyists in the back seat. Whatever is going on, we’d be better off with a new driver.

April 3rd, 2018|Articles, Commentary, Uncategorized|