Twenty-nine percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from the transportation sector. According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, that makes it the largest contributor to the total sum of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
When it comes to regulating that pollution, federal and state vehicle emissions and fuel economy standards are set by three agencies: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and the California Air Resources Board (CARB). These groups previously convened in 2012 when they developed standards that required automakers to increase fuel efficiency by about 5% annually.
In 2020, NHTSA and EPA finalized new and revised standards for model year 2021–2026 light-duty vehicles (i.e., passenger cars and light-duty trucks), and revoked California’s authority to establish GHG emissions standards.
The 2020 rollback increased mileage requirements by 1.5% per year from the 2021 through 2026 model years, the Star Tribune reports. A deal that gave automakers double credit toward meeting their fuel economy and pollution requirements for building fully electric vehicles was removed, and California’s legal authority to set its own standards under the Clean Air Act was blocked.
The measure was quickly passed through in the last year of a single-term president, and may have muddied some legal waters along the way.
The Trump administration ignored warnings that its new rule has serious flaws, according to documents obtained by Sen. Thomas R. Carper on the Environment and Public Works Committee However, the objections were stifled, and not entered into public record as required under the Clean Air Act.
“In the rush to finalize this rule — and in the middle of a pandemic, no less — they broke just about every rule in the book,” said Carper, who asked the EPA inspector general to investigate in an official letter. “The result is a policy that fails to protect public health, fails to save money, fails to result in safer vehicles and will, ultimately and undoubtedly, fail in court.”
As the Washington Post reports, The Environmental Defense Fund notified the EPA of legal action if the federal rulemaking docket and all interagency review materials, including comments its staff made on the Transportation Department proposal sent to the White House, were published.
“The agency here has adopted a rule that, by their own analysis and all scenarios, hurts the public and runs contrary to the agency’s mandate,” said Peter Zalzal, lead attorney for the EDF. “It is increasing fuel use, it is increasing pollution and it is hurting the public.”
In another letter to the White House in February 2021, two dozen environmental and green-friendly groups including the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council urged restoring the 2012 standards in a plan to make all new cars and light-duty trucks zero-emission by 2035, the Star Tribune reports.
“Not only are the automakers rejecting standards they agreed to 10 years ago, they are even refusing a weaker deal that five carmakers cut with California,” said Dan Becker, a director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The administration should follow the science. We need to have much stronger national rules so we’re not guilty of looking global warming in the eye and blinking.”
These rollbacks to national fuel and tailpipe emissions standards are expected to have the largest effect on future emissions out of all contributors to greenhouse gas, the New York Times reports. New cars and trucks are expected to emit one billion more tons of carbon dioxide through 2035 than they would have if the cleaner vehicle rules had stayed in place. The rule changes could also lead to five million fewer electric cars sold over that span, the Rhodium Group, a research and consulting firm, estimated.
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