clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The EPA refuted its own bizarre justification for rolling back fuel efficiency standards

The agency claims it will save lives by making safe cars more affordable. Internal emails showed that the proposal would be more dangerous.

A Model S sits on the showroom floor at a Tesla dealership on March 30, 2018 in Chicago, Illinois. 
A Tesla Model S sits on the showroom floor at a dealership. The electric carmaker could lose some of the money it makes selling efficiency credits under the EPA’s new rules.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

The Environmental Protection Agency is starting to roll back one of the most important Obama-era policies for fighting climate change: fuel efficiency standards. At the same time, the agency is also picking a knock-down, drag-out legal fight with states that want tougher car emission rules.

The EPA justified this proposal by invoking safety, arguing that higher efficiency standards make it harder to buy safer cars. But emails revealed this week that the EPA’s strange rationale didn’t hold up under the agency’s own analysis. In fact, the proposed changes would increase fatalities, as Ellen Knickmeyer reported for the Associated Press:

In announcing the mileage proposal earlier this month, officials with the EPA and Department of Transportation contended the mileage freeze would save about 1,000 lives a year. But in a June email, senior EPA staffers told the Office of Management and Budget — the White House office charged with evaluating regulatory changes — that it would slightly increase highway deaths, by 17 annually.

The “proposed standards are detrimental to safety, rather than beneficial,” William Charmley, director of the assessments and standards division of the EPA’s office of transportation and air quality, said in a June 18 interagency email, released Tuesday.

This directly contradicts what senior EPA officials said publicly about the proposed new fuel economy regulations released earlier this month by the EPA and the US Department of Transportation. “More realistic standards can save lives while continuing to improve the environment,” said EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler in a statement.

The proposal would ramp up fuel economy standards for cars and light-duty trucks until 2021, and then freeze them. The previous Obama-era standard continued to ratchet up fuel efficiency after 2021. The change would also revoke California’s waiver to set its own rules under the Clean Air Act, rules that 13 other states and the District of Columbia also follow.

California is already swinging back:

The transportation sector is now the largest greenhouse gas emitter in the United States. That’s why enforcing strict fuel economy standards — i.e., going further with less fossil fuels — would reduce the country’s contribution to global climate change. Vehicles are also the largest source of air pollution, so reducing what comes out of tailpipes would save lives.

The Obama-era standards would avert 570 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, equivalent to stopping 140 typical coal-fired power plants for a year, the Union of Concerned Scientists has estimated.

They’d save consumers money too. According to Margo Oge, the former head of the EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality, the fuel savings alone through 2025 would add up to $1.7 trillion.

The Trump administration, however, has argued that the prior Obama standards would drain society of $500 billion over the next 50 years through increased car ownership costs and their ripple effects.

Vox’s David Roberts has written about the environmental consequences the new regulations could have if they go into effect, but it’s also worth examining the EPA’s safety rationale and how it will affect the auto industry.

In particular, the Trump administration changes would let companies like Chrysler and GM, which rank the lowest in average fuel economy, breathe easier. They also cut a crucial revenue stream for carmakers like Honda that already beat the current standards and manufacturers like Tesla, which only makes zero-emission electric vehicles.

That means the weaker regulations will simultaneously help the dirtiest, hurt the cleanest, and derail years of tenuous progress in reducing environmental harm from a massive and growing source of pollution.

The EPA is justifying the fuel economy rollback by invoking safety

New cars are expensive. New cars with more features are even more expensive. Safety is a feature. So is fuel economy. But raising fuel economy standards raises the retail prices of cars. That means people with older death-trap cars will be less inclined to upgrade to newer, safer cars.

Therefore, according to the EPA’s peculiar logic, raising fuel economy standards will kill motorists. Lowering them will save lives.

“[The new fuel efficiency proposal] is anticipated to prevent thousands of on-road fatalities and injuries as compared to the standards set forth in the 2012 final rule,” the EPA wrote in a press release about the announcement. The EPA said the proposed changes would save 1,000 lives per year.

Wait, what?

I asked the EPA for clarification on these points, and they referred me back to their press release.

Here’s the problem, though:

Yes, newer cars are safer. But efficiency has been advancing in tandem with safety, and average fuel economy reached a record high this year. Americans are driving farther than ever, but the fatality rate has fallen drastically over the past four decades:

Traffic deaths compared to vehicle miles traveled.
Traffic deaths compared to vehicle miles traveled (VMT).
National Highway Transportation Safety Administration

The EPA said the Obama rules would add an additional $2,340 to the overall ownership costs of a new vehicle. Given that the annual cost to own a car is around $8,000, an additional $468 per year over five years for a more efficient car or truck isn’t a deal breaker for most buyers.

The other part of the EPA’s safety argument is that more fuel-efficient cars tend to be lighter and therefore more vulnerable in accidents. And people with fuel sippers would be inclined to drive them more, thereby increasing the likelihood of getting into a wreck. So heavy, dirty cars are good because they use so much gas that people will drive them less, according to the EPA.

On the other hand, air pollution from vehicles is responsible for 30,000 premature deaths. It stands to reason that the lives saved by improving efficiency and reducing air pollution outweigh the lives saved by potential car buyers on the margins upgrading to safer cars. Also, one of the biggest reasons new cars became so safe is because of sweeping federal regulations, so if saving lives is the goal, this is the better way to do it.

That’s why state environmental regulators are deeply skeptical.

“At first glance, this proposal completely misrepresents costs and savings. It also relies on bizarre assumptions about consumer behavior to make its case on safety,” said California Air Resources Board Chair Mary D. Nichols in a statement. “CARB will examine all 978 pages of fine print to figure out how the Administration can possibly justify its absurd conclusion that weakening standards to allow dirtier, less efficient vehicles will actually save lives and money.”

Fuel economy rules were put in place to save automakers from a crisis

It’s important to remember why the Obama administration imposed these rules in the first place. Here’s some brief history: After the 2008 financial crash and the ensuing economic crisis, Chrysler and General Motors were on the ropes and came to Congress with their hands out looking for a bailout. They received cheap loans and financial assistance under Presidents Bush and Obama totaling almost $80 billion, with a net cost to taxpayers of $9.3 billion.

A big reason US car companies were foundering was that gas prices suddenly shot up and US automakers, who for years were making bigger, thirstier cars, were suddenly facing a cash-crunched, fuel-abstemious market.

Look at the peak on the left.
Energy Information Administration

So the Obama administration told US car companies they needed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and improve their efficiency to better compete with foreign automakers, marking the biggest increase in fuel economy regulations in 30 years.

This manifested as a combination of rules across the EPA, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, and the California Air Resources Board finalized in 2012.

The key target was that automakers would have to reduce their average greenhouse gas emissions from the passenger cars and light trucks they sell to 163 grams per mile by 2025. A subtle point here is the EPA estimated meeting this goal with just fuel efficiency improvements means car companies would have to achieve an average economy of 54.5 miles per gallon across their offerings, assuming more cars than trucks are sold. That doesn’t mean that 54.5 mpg is the actual benchmark for all car companies.

Sam Ori, executive director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, explained that the fuel economy standard was designed to adapt to consumer behavior. It’s measured based on the vehicle’s footprint, so larger cars and trucks have to meet less stringent targets.

So if people buy more SUVs, a car company is allowed to have a lower average fuel economy. On the other hand, this can push carmakers to build larger and larger vehicles (witness the growth of crossover SUVs).

“Footprint-based standards incentivize automakers to make bigger vehicles,” he said.

A car company can also reduce its greenhouse gas emissions with tactics like limiting coolant leaks and by buying credits. Based on current trends and projections, the EPA estimates that the current rules will require a real-world average fuel economy of 36 miles per gallon by 2025, up from 24.7 miles per gallon in 2016.

To make sure the rules are working, the EPA is required to conduct a midterm evaluation to make sure manufacturers are doing their best and to see whether the rules are too strict.

The Obama administration reported in January 2017, shortly before Trump took office, that everything was hunky-dory. Then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said it wasn’t.

“The Obama Administration’s determination was wrong,” Pruitt said in a press release. “Obama’s EPA cut the Midterm Evaluation process short with politically charged expediency, made assumptions about the standards that didn’t comport with reality, and set the standards too high.”

But the document the EPA links to as background for the rollback announcement reports that the ruling from former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy was “based on an extensive technical record, created over 8 years of research, review of several hundred published reports, hundreds of stakeholder meetings, and multiple opportunities for the public to provide input.”

Ori said the new proposal is thin on its technical justifications. “It does not rise to the level of what the Obama administration did to put these rules into place,” he said.

Now the EPA is on a collision course with California and the 13 states that want stricter rules. The EPA said it wants a harmonized national fuel economy standard rather than a patchwork and said California’s benchmarks are “technologically infeasible.

“The Trump Administration has launched a brazen attack, no matter how it is cloaked, on our nation’s Clean Car Standards,” wrote California Attorney General Xavier Becerra in a statement. “The California Department of Justice will use every legal tool at its disposal to defend today’s national standards and reaffirm the facts and science behind them.”

Here’s how this hurts Tesla

Since Tesla only makes electric cars, it can sell a variety of state and federal credits to other automakers who are having a harder time meeting the Obama-era goals. They come in three mutually exclusive categories: zero-emissions vehicle credits, greenhouse gas emissions credits, and fuel economy credits.

“They can leverage the same car in multiple categories,” said Benjamin Leard, a research fellow at Resources for the Future.

Other carmakers like Honda and Toyota also sell credits since they are beating the current standards.

According to Tesla’s latest 10-K filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company has seen more and more money coming in from selling these credits. “Revenue from the sale of regulatory credits totaled $360.3 million, $302.3 million and $168.7 million for the years ended December 31, 2017, 2016 and 2015, respectively,” according to the filing.

The expectation was that as emissions limits ratchet down, conventional car companies would have to spend more on credits to comply with the rules or invest in cleaning up their cars. But with the emissions and fuel economy standards holding steady, the demand for new credits would shrink.

“I would certainly expect the prices of those credits to go down” with the rollback of the standards, Leard said.

Tesla is nonetheless gaining market share, though the company still wants tougher efficiency standards. “Fuel economy standards should be strengthened, not weakened,” Tesla spokeswoman Gina Antonini told Vox. “This is overwhelmingly the opinion of the scientific community.”

After a wave of bad press, Tesla founder Elon Musk was contrite on an earnings call this month, but is facing new scrutiny from the Securities and Exchange Commission for tweeting about taking the company private.

Others in the auto industry are also not enthusiastic about the fuel economy rollback.

Prior to Thursday’s EPA announcement, Wade Newton, a spokesperson for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said in an email that “While we have said that re-opening the midterm review was the right thing to do, the Alliance has long said that we support year-over-year increases in fuel economy.”

After the proposal was published, the Alliance said in a statement that they want the NHTSA, the EPA, and states to start negotiating a deal. “We urge California and the federal government to find a common sense solution that sets continued increases in vehicle efficiency standards while also meeting the needs of America’s drivers,” according to the statement.

The EPA’s fuel economy proposal will now be open to a 60-day review and the agency is taking public comments. The EPA and NHTSA will also hold three public hearings on the revisions. Dates have not been announced yet.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.