By Brian Lim
Graduate Intern, Science and Technology Policy Program
Despite mounting evidence of the harmful effects of increasing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, the Trump administration has been quietly pushing to relax the Obama-era vehicle emissions rules. On September 19, officials from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Transportation (DoT) issued a rule that would strip California of its longstanding Clean Air Act authority that allows it to stringently regulate tailpipe emissions and set higher corporate average fuel-economy (CAFE) standards than the rest of the nation. The next day, California, along with 22 other states and the District of Columbia, sued the Trump administration in an effort to preserve its waiver and maintain the current regulatory regime. A lengthy legal battle is certain to ensue.
When the Clean Air Act was amended in 1970, California was granted a waiver allowing it to maintain its preexisting regulatory regime, borne of smog control efforts in Los Angeles in the 1950s. In the current battle, California has argued that the Trump administration’s efforts are capricious and that its stricter standards are necessary to combat its specific smog problems, as well as climate change more broadly. Additionally, there is no statutory process for revoking the waiver, which has been respected for decades by administrations of both parties. The federal government has acknowledged and, in many cases, sought out California’s help in setting standards. Most notably, the EPA and DoT worked with California and automakers to increase the CAFE standards to 54.5 miles per gallon under President Obama.
While the Trump administration argues that its efforts are necessary to unshackle the economy, the revocation of California’s waiver and a rollback of the Obama-era standards will throw the market into disarray, something several car companies noted in a letter to President Trump earlier this year. The original waiver provision in the Clean Air Act allowed other states to adopt California’s standards. This “California effect” has driven both policy and the market: today, 13 other states and the District of Columbia follow California’s lead, accounting for nearly half of the U.S. population and licensed vehicles. Automakers have responded positively, recognizing a significant market opportunity in making their vehicle lineups more environmentally friendly.
Every major automaker is investing billions in R&D and manufacturing electric vehicles (EVs). In 2017, GM announced that they would offer 20 EV models by 2023, and Ford has indicated that even the iconic F-150 will become electrified in the coming years. Recognizing the political and market forces, four of the major automakers agreed to a deal with California to maintain the national trajectory toward cleaner emissions and protect current and future investments in technology development. Simply put, the Trump administration’s efforts will split the market and create significant uncertainty.
The economy-wide benefits of the transition to greener vehicles are clear. For consumers, while upfront costs of a more fuel-efficient car are often higher, there are big savings in terms of fuel expenditures, the largest annual cost in operating a vehicle; the U.S. Department of Energy currently estimates that the cost of fueling an EV is half the cost of fueling a gasoline-powered vehicle. Obama-era CAFE standards have been projected to save the economy nearly $400 billion in gasoline costs by 2050. Maintenance costs are also lower, and total cost of ownership is reaching parity with conventional vehicles. Consumers have clearly taken notice; the American Automobile Association recently found that one in five American drivers plan to purchase an EV as their next vehicle.
The transportation sector is now the No. 1 CO2-emitting economic sector, accounting for roughly 30% of U.S. total. Efforts to dismantle the current vehicle emissions regime are at odds with warning signals from both environmental and health professionals. Global climate change, caused in part by CO2 and other greenhouse gases, is severely disrupting ecosystems, the economy, and society; coral reef bleaching events, unpredictable hurricanes and tropical storms, and forest fires have increased in both frequency and magnitude over the last few decades.
And there are public health consequences on top of the environmental disruptions. This year, the American Lung Association reported that 141.1 million Americans live in counties with unhealthy ozone and/or particle pollution, an increase of 7.2 million from the previous year. A recent large-scale study found that long-term exposure to ozone and airborne particulate matter was associated with significantly elevated risk of emphysema, a disease usually associated with smoking cigarettes.
Policy provisions, like the California waiver, are a significant step toward long-term decarbonization. Changing standards, whether through revocation of California’s waiver or a broader rollback of existing vehicle emissions policies, disrupts automakers’ R&D, ignores the market realities and shifting consumer preferences, and reverses necessary efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions and maintain healthy living environments.