Consumer advocates and environmentalists aren't buying the automakers' and Trump's arguments about rolling back fuel-efficiency standards

Car smoke exhaust tailpipeWikimedia CommonsCar exhaust.

President Donald Trump went to Detroit on Wednesday to announce that a review of fuel-economy and greenhouse-gas emission standards would be re-opened.

The review was concluded in January, before Scott Pruitt took over Trump’s EPA. Swift and aggressive lobbying by 18 car companies paid off, as Trump needs hiring in Midwestern auto stronghold states to make good on campaign promises.

The carmakers were vocal in their displeasure about the EPA’s action, and although they might not ultimately see the so-called Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards rolled back, they will get their chance to present their case.

They have argued that the market has turned against smaller, higher MPG vehicles in favour of big pickups and SUVs, which bring in higher profits.

Automakers also aren’t keen on continuing to invest in electric vehicles when the global market for them has thus far disappointed; EVs make up just 1% of global sales.

After the Trump announcement, several consumer and environmental groups expressed their own objections to both the decision to re-open the review (originally designed to check progress on the goal of achieving by 2025 a fleet average of 54.5 mpg for all automakers selling cars and trucks in the US).

“They had ample time to comment,” Mark Cooper, Director of Research for the Consumer Federation of America, said on a conference call with reporters.

“The fact they didn’t like that outcome doesn’t mean they can have more time. The [EPA] did its job and reached a fair conclusion.”

A short-circuited review

Automakers accused the Obama Administration of short-circuiting the review process and failing to take into account that both car companies and government had taken a long-term view on the more stringent CAFE standards, with the understanding the review would provide an opportunity for Ford, General Motors, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and 15 other car makers to point out the costs of developing new vehicles and to assess the realities of the market.

Shannon Baker-Branstetter, Energy and Environment Policy Counsel at Consumers Union, which deals with public policy for Consumer Reports, wasn’t buying it.

“The EPA worked many many thousands of hours with NHTSA and automakers and found the standards to be cost effective,” she said on the Wednesday conference call.

“Now the automakers coming up with cost analyses that are higher. They will get a new chance to put higher numbers into the record, but that doesn’t mean the EPA’s record doesn’t stand on its own.”

Sure Reid, Vice-President of Energy Programs at sustainability advocate Ceres, indicated that the carmakers are using the CAFE review to drag their feet in innovating.

“The 2022-2025 targets are more affordable to meet than contemplated back in 2011,” she said. “Facts are the facts, and the analysis is quite good. Between when the standards were adopted and now, the world has been decarbonizing, so it’s time to get on with it.”

A unified view

The consumer advocates who joined the call were unified in their view that automakers were looking for short-term gains to their bottom lines at the expense of giving customers more fuel-efficient vehicles and alternatives to gas-powered cars and trucks, as well as getting out of step with global moves to address climate change.

Their arguments, however, are at odd with Trump’s “America First” policies.

For some in the environmental community, the president’s directive was baffling.

“This change makes no sense,” Rhea Suh, President of the Natural Resources Defence Council, said in a statement prior to Trump’s announcement.

“Mileage standards save consumers money at the gas pump, make Americans less dependent on oil, reduce carbon pollution and advance innovation. The current standards helped the auto companies move from bankruptcy to profitability, and there is no reason they cannot be met. This is just another part of President Trump’s retreat from action on climate change.”

Her comments were echoed by Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune, who also issued a statement.

“We need to put clean car standards in the fast lane to keep our air clean and our climate safe,” he said. “Donald Trump and the automakers are endangering the health of our children and families by abolishing life-saving vehicle emissions protections that cut down on dangerous smog pollution and asthma attacks.”

He added: “Not only are our cars and trucks more efficient than ever before, but US auto sales have reached record highs since these safeguards were put in place … Donald Trump’s executive order is reckless and puts the health and safety of American families in jeopardy.”

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