The wrecking ball that is the Trump presidency is taking aim at the foundation of our country’s response to climate change. Today, the Trump Administration is announcing a re-opening of the fuel efficiency/emissions standards for cars, which can only mean one thing—weakening or repealing them. And it is expected that he will soon issue a directive to EPA to repeal the Clean Power Plan, and may also order EPA to rescind a waiver that it granted to California to set its own vehicle standards.
If the Trump administration succeeds in rolling back all three, the effect will be to increase by billions of tons the emission of global warming gases and other pollutants that endanger our health; burden our children with much higher costs of fighting climate change; cede the United States’ clean energy prominence to other countries, and make it much harder to meet the goals we set for ourselves as part of the 2015 international Paris Agreement on Climate.
We must fight this reprehensible rollback with everything we’ve got.
Global warming pollution and fuel economy standards
In 2012, the Obama Administration issued standards to cut global warming emissions and improve fuel economy for passenger cars. These standards are expected to increase the number of miles per gallon (mpg) for passenger vehicles from about 26 mpg on average today to approximately 36 mpg by 2025. (The figures are based on “real world” driving conditions, and differ from the EPA estimate of achieving approximately 54 mpg).
The first phase of these standards are in effect now, and are working. The second phase of these standards (from 2022-2025) are projected to save consumers approximately $1,500 per car (net savings), reduce oil use by over a billion barrels, and cut carbon pollution by over 500 million metric tons.
The automobile manufacturers were key architects of these standards. But now some are trying to back out of their commitment, even though they are experiencing record sales and new technologies are coming on line that will help them meet these standards more quickly and inexpensively.
Doing the bidding of these car makers, Trump has directed EPA to “reopen” the standards that govern cars built in 2021-2025. While we can’t know for sure what the outcome of this re-opening will be, we have to prepare for the worst—that the intent is to severely weaken or even repeal the standards.
Note that this cannot be achieved with the stroke of a pen. In order for EPA to do this, it must provide notice, issue a draft regulation repealing the plan, take public comment on it, and issue a final regulation. That final regulation would likely be challenged in court, and the Trump administration will have to demonstrate that there is compelling new information that justified changing course. During the rulemaking process that will follow, we must make clear to the Trump administration that these standards are working, and that Americans want lower-polluting and more fuel efficient cars. And we must loudly register our displeasure with those automakers which received massive taxpayer assistance during the last recession, agreed to build more efficient cars in return, and are now reneging on their promise.
When the Clean Air Act was passed in the 1970s, it gave the federal government exclusive authority to regulate tailpipe emissions from cars, but it included one exception: California retained the authority to issue its own, stricter standards, provided it received a “waiver” from the EPA. Since that time, California has received approximately 50 waivers from the EPA, which have helped the state dramatically improve air quality for its residents.
As part of the 2012 agreement on joint global warming pollution and fuel economy standards, the Obama Administration worked with California to set national standards sufficient to meet the state’s greenhouse gas emission reduction needs. This avoided separate state and federal standards for reducing global warming pollution from vehicles– a goal of the auto industry.
However, California also set its own standards for deploying electric vehicles and tailpipe emission standards for gasoline and diesel to combat CA’s poor air quality – something it has done several times to protect the health of its citizens. California was granted a waiver to implement all of these standards in January 2013
Reports indicate that Trump may soon direct the EPA to rescind this waiver. The reason for this is simple: it won’t satisfy car makers to relax the EPA’s fuel economy standards while still leaving California’s standards in place.
Over the past 50 years, no EPA Administrator has ever rescinded a waiver granted to California, and there is no provision in the Clean Air Act that allows it. This radical move is not only destructive, it is hypocritical. EPA Administrator Pruitt has called himself a protector of state’s rights and pledged to give states greater latitude to address their own needs. Yet now, in one of his first moves as administrator, he is working to take away California’s right to set its own standards.
Here again, a public process is required. Rescinding this waiver directly affects not only California, but also twelve other states (NY, PA, MA, ME, NJ, CT, DE, OR, WA, VT and DC) that have adopted California’s standards (which they are allowed to do once a waiver is granted). Many of these states are counting on these standards as a means to meet climate change goals and air quality targets required by their own state laws. California and these other states can be expected to challenge the waiver rescission in court, and will have a strong argument that it is arbitrary to rescind a waiver that was granted five years ago, merely because the federal government has decided to weaken its own standards.
Clean Power Plan
In 2015, EPA issued the first-ever limits on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants—which are among the largest sources of this heat trapping gas. The plan would cut CO2 emissions by approximately 32 percent off 2005 levels by 2030 by relying on proven and effective tools, such as renewable energy, energy efficiency, switching from coal to gas, and market-based emission trading. The Clean Power Plan will ensure that all states and utilities advance together towards a cleaner energy sector. It is particularly important to have this rule in place in 2021, when tax incentives for wind and solar energy expire.
Trump’s anticipated presidential directive is likely to call on EPA to repeal this regulation. As is the case with the vehicle standards, the repeal will have to go through a formal rulemaking process. The repeal may seem like a foregone conclusion, because candidate Trump pledged to do away with the plan and Scott Pruitt, the new EPA Administrator, previously sued EPA to block it.
But participating in the public process is extremely important nonetheless. Among other things, we should demand that, if Trump abolishes the Clean Power Plan, he replace it with an alternative that achieves the same level of emission reduction. If he does not, the next step will be the courtroom. It cannot be emphasized strongly enough that EPA has a mandatory duty to address carbon pollution under the Clean Air Act, so killing Obama’s plan without a viable replacement is not only irresponsible, it is illegal.
The stakes are high
Over the past eight years, the United States has become a clean energy leader. We’ve accomplished a massive expansion of wind energy in the great plains, solar in the southwest and southeast, breakthrough battery technologies making electric cars better (and soon less expensive) than their gasoline-fired counterparts, switched to LED lightbulbs, and implemented a wide array of building materials and techniques to cut energy use. With these powerful changes, our country has risen to the challenges posed by climate change while creating millions of jobs in the process.
Some of this progress will continue no matter what the Trump administration does. But Trump’s anticipated three-way rollback will slow this progress down, probably significantly.
To get a glimpse of how high the stakes are, the graph below depicts estimated energy sector CO2 emissions. We focus on the year 2030, when both the Clean Power Plan and the fuel economy standards would be in full effect.
The graph shows that repealing the Clean Power Plan and the fuel economy standards (nationwide and for California) will increase energy-related emissions in 2030 by 439 million metric tons, or approximately 9%.
Cumulative through 2030, the repeal will increase emissions by 2.5 billion metric tons. The graph also shows that without these two policies, energy related emissions will actually increase overall from current levels. Yet under the Paris Agreement that we signed in 2015, we pledged to decrease emissions on an ongoing basis, based on the overwhelming scientific consensus that we are running out of time to cut emissions of greenhouse gases. By taking off the table these emission reductions, the Trump administration makes meeting these goals much more difficult, and transfers to the next generation the burden of billions of tons of carbon-cutting from one generation to the next.
It is a travesty that the Trump administration seeks to undo the progress we’ve made, but it is not surprising. Candidate Trump called global warming a “hoax.” He picked Scott Pruitt to head EPA due to Pruitt’s legal expertise in obstructing EPA with litigation, and Mr. Pruitt has now gone on record saying that he does not believe carbon dioxide emissions are a primary cause of climate change. And he seems to think that virtually all government regulations are detrimental, blind to the positive economic and environmental changes they can achieve.
Any false hope that President Trump might moderate some of his more radical rhetoric once in office must now be laid aside. We can see the wrecking ball and the direction it is swinging. And we must stop it before it is too late.
Photo: Rhys A/CC BY (Flickr)