Clean Cars Rollback: Trump Plan Purports to Save Lives by Making It Too Expensive to Drive

The Absurdity of the Trump Administration’s Safety Claims

Aug. 16, 2018 – Since being implemented in 2012, the Obama-era fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions standards, also known as clean car standards, have dramatically reduced tailpipe emissions that cause global warming and have saved consumers more than $60 billion at the gas pump.

However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) released a proposed rule (PDF) on Aug. 2 that would freeze clean car standards at 2020 levels through 2026. The plan also would revoke a waiver that allows 13 states and the District of Columbia to set more stringent tailpipe pollution standards. The agencies titled the rule “The Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule,” and claimed it would save 12,700 lives over a decade. But the evidence does not justify either the moniker or the claim.

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Documents released this week reveal that even the Trump administration’s own EPA advised the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) that its analysis was wildly off base.

“The Proposed standards are detrimental to safety, rather than beneficial as suggested by the As-Received version,” William Charmley, director of the Assessment and Standards Division of the EPA, wrote to OMB officials on June 18. “In other words, results with our code revisions indicate that the proposed standards would result in an increase in the fatality rate of 7 deaths per trillion miles driven.”

Independent analysis shows that freezing the standards could cost consumers up to $500 more per year in fuel costs and would pump an additional 2.2 billion metric tons of global warming pollution into the atmosphere by 2040.

It appears that the administration resorted to cooking the books when defending its decision.

The original standards were based on thousands of hours of research and analysis, as well as a significant amount of technical expertise and stakeholder input. And while the facts haven’t changed, the administration has. Less than two months after taking office, President Donald Trump promised to let the automakers out of their commitment to build cleaner, more fuel efficient vehicles, even if doing so required the agencies to do a complete 180 on the previous technical analysis.

In explaining why it was undermining such a successful program, the administration claimed that a freeze would save consumers money. How? Officials inaccurately claimed that meeting the standards would increase the cost of vehicles by more than consumers would subsequently save from improved fuel economy. While independent modeling shows complying with the standards costs as much as 40 percent less than originally predicted, the administration’s new rule takes the already overestimated compliance costs and inflates them by a factor of more than two.

The administration is required to justify its proposal because existing law calls on the federal government to set fuel economy requirements from 2021 to 2030 at the “maximum feasible standard.” It is inconceivable that freezing standards could represent the maximum feasible standard achievable, especially given that the current year requirements for the European Union and Japan already exceed those planned in the United States for 2021.

Safety Canards

The Trump administration’s safety arguments are:

  1. The rule will save lives because people will drive less, thus decreasing overall risk. (This accounts for 50 percent of the lives the administration promises to save.)
  2. The rule will save lives because it will encourage purchase of new vehicles, which officials believe would be safer. (This accounts for 49 percent of the lives the administration promises to save.)
  3. The rule will save lives because it will lead to the manufacture of heavier vehicles, which the rule says would be safer. (This accounts for one percent of the lives the administration promises to save.)

These claims are demonstrably false. See our full memo (PDF) for more details.