October 30, 2018

The Trump Administration’s Orwellian SAFE Vehicles Rule

David M. Uhlmann Jeffrey F. Liss Professor from Practice and Director, Environmental Law and Policy Program, University of Michigan Law School


The public comment period closed Friday for the Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule, the latest in the blizzard of regulatory rollbacks that have hollowed out the Environmental Protection Agency and left its environmental and public health mission in tatters.

The SAFE Vehicles Rule is not a new public health and safety program that requires automakers to produce safer cars for American families.  In fact, the SAFE Vehicles Rule does not impose any safety requirements at all.  Instead, the SAFE Vehicles Rule kills higher fuel economy standards for model years 2021-2025 that would have reduced carbon pollution in the transportation sector, the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

As always, there is context here, much of it supplied by President Trump’s refusal to acknowledge the dangers of climate change and his dystopian zeal for undoing Obama-era environmental protection rules, despite their enormous public health and economic benefits.

In 2011, after the federal government’s bailout of the auto industry, the Obama administration reached a landmark agreement with 13 large automakers, including Ford, Chrysler, and GM, that dramatically increased fuel economy standards for model years 2017-2025.  The agreement required cars and light duty trucks to reach 54.5 miles per gallon in fuel efficiency by model year 2025 and set targets for production of electric cars and hybrids, subject to a mid-term review to determine whether the fuel standards were attainable for 2022-2025.

The Clean Air Act rules codifying the agreement were a win-win for the environment and the economy, boosting American efforts to address global climate change and slashing gasoline costs for consumers.  The auto industry also benefitted because more fuel-efficient vehicles and increased production of electric and hybrid cars meets consumer demand in global markets, where foreign car manufacturers are reinventing themselves to produce zero-emission electric vehicles.  In the waning days of the Obama administration, EPA and DoT determined that the more stringent standards were attainable and should remain in effect for 2022-2025.

Within weeks of his inauguration, however, President Trump proclaimed that he would consider lowering the fuel economy standards for 2022-2025 to save jobs.  EPA and DoT commenced a review of the standards in March 2017 and, to the surprise of no one, determined in April 2018 that the fuel economy standards were “not appropriate” and should be revised, resulting in the announcement of the SAFE Vehicles Rule in August 2018.

The SAFE Vehicles Rule would freeze fuel economy standards at 2020 levels or 37 miles per gallon, a cut of more than 30 percent from existing Clean Air Act requirements.  The rule also would curtail the industry targets for electric vehicles and hybrid cars.  The justification for scuttling higher fuel efficiency and lower carbon dioxide emissions that would help protect the planet from climate change?  Greenhouse gas emissions from American cars are a fraction of global emissions—so cutting those emissions won’t do much to limit global climate change—and more fuel-efficient cars are lighter, which would increase fatal car accidents.

If this defeatism and cynicism were not enough, the Trump administration also is picking a fight with California over a decades-old exemption under the Clean Air Act that allows California to set its own fuel economy standards.  Because of its unique air pollution problems, California began regulating air pollution in the 1960s, before the enactment of the Clean Air Act.  In the decades since, California has retained its ability to impose more stringent motor vehicle standards, a special status or “waiver” that Congress and the courts have long recognized.

The California waiver is unwieldy in the sense that it leads to two sets of motor vehicle emission rules, with 12 states and the District of Columbia following the California standards, and the rest of the country following the federal standards.  But the Trump administration is not taking on California out of concern for regulatory efficiency; the concern at EPA and DoT is that California is pushing the rest of the country into more assertive climate change mitigation and environmental protection policies.  It is remarkable temerity from an Administration that purports to prefer that states decide how much to protect the environment—unless, of course, states want to provide more environmental protection than what is required by a feckless EPA.

Nor is there any merit to the Administration’s claims that it must reverse the Obama-fuel efficiency standards because doing so will save American lives.  EPA and DoT insist that more fuel efficiency means lighter cars and therefore more fatalities when accidents occur.  They cite no empirical evidence to support this view, and there is no such trend in European countries where smaller (and lighter) cars are the norm.  Indeed, the studies that exist suggest that lighter vehicles have stronger components and fare better in crashes, reducing automobile fatalities.

EPA and DoT reported that they received more than 100,000 public comments ahead of the Friday deadline.  Perhaps most revealing were comments from GM and Honda, both of which opposed the Trump administration proposal.  “We know that we can do better” than the Trump administration proposal, one GM official stated.  “We know the industry can do better.”

Perhaps the Trump administration will pull back its reckless SAFE Vehicles Rule in the face of industry opposition and the public outcry generated by the proposed rule.  But don’t count on it.  President Trump may be undisciplined and unprincipled in nearly every other respect, but he retains a perverse, single-minded obsession with undoing as much as he can of the Obama administration’s laudable climate change and environmental protection legacy.

At last count, the Trump administration had proposed more than 80 environmental rollbacks, which may or may not provide any benefits for the deregulated industries but almost certainly will exact an enormous toll on the young, the elderly, and those with chronic health conditions.  Federal courts have rejected many of the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks, and the lack of any rational basis for the SAFE Vehicles Rule may consign it to a similar fate, which would leave the more stringent 2021-2025 fuel standards in place.

In the meantime, however, President Trump’s environmental purge exacts enormous opportunity costs as we fight to preserve gains achieved by the last administration and fail to make continued progress even though scientists tell us that we have no more than two decades to prevent catastrophic climate change.  We would be far better served if EPA and DoT reversed course on the SAFE Vehicles Rule—and similarly pulled back when public comment ends this week on the Clean Energy Plan, which would protect dirty coal-fired power plants.  Our children and grandchildren deserve more from us, and their lives hang in the balance as we dither.