In a press release, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt announced that the U.S. government would revisit the Obama administration’s fuel efficiency standards for cars and light-duty trucks—the first step in a rollback of one of the U.S.’s biggest efforts to curb carbon emissions.
In July 2011, President Obama announced he would tighten regulations of vehicle greenhouse gas emissions, with rules that were first finalized in August 2012. Under Obama-era policy, cars and light-duty trucks would be required to have average fuel efficiencies equivalent to 54.5 miles per gallon by model year 2025.
About a sixth of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2016 came from passenger cars and light-duty trucks. Overall, the Obama program would’ve reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 6 billion metric tons—more than the total CO2 the U.S. emitted in 2016.
The EPA committed to finishing a midterm evaluation of the 2022-2025 standards by no later than April 1, 2018. On January 12, 2017, outgoing Obama EPA administrator Gina McCarthy finalized the evaluation and reaffirmed the stringent emissions standards.
At the time, car manufacturers argued that the 2022-2025 standards were unrealistic, expensive, and politically rushed. The Trump administration has enthusiastically echoed these sentiments; it restarted the midterm evaluation in March 2017.
“The Obama administration’s determination was wrong,” Pruitt said in a statement. “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.”
Automakers struck a guardedly pleased tone in releases about the announcement, seemingly leery that they may be getting more rollbacks out of the Trump EPA than they originally bargained for. Already, environmental and public health groups are voicing fierce opposition.
“Starting a process to weaken clean car standards marks yet another step backward from the fight to curb climate change,” said Harold P. Wimmer, the national president and CEO of the American Lung Association, in a statement. “Climate change poses serious threats to millions of people, especially to some of the most vulnerable Americans, including children, older adults and those living with chronic diseases such as asthma.”
“Pruitt’s rollback of the EPA clean car standards is a U-turn in the fight against climate change. We don’t know exactly how far the agency will back-track until they publish new standards, but we can be sure that it will make achieving a low-carbon transportation system more difficult and likely more expensive,” wrote Luke Tonachel, the clean vehicles director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a statement.
Globally, lowering U.S. emissions standards could bolster other countries to weaken their own emissions standards. Within the U.S., a rollback would set up a legal trench war between the EPA and the state of California. Under a waiver it received at the dawn of the EPA, California has the authority to set its own, more stringent emissions standards. Twelve other states and the District of Columbia—in all, a third of the U.S. population—follow California’s lead.
“We’re ready to file suit if needed to protect these critical standards and to fight the administration’s war on our environment,” said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra in a statement. “California didn’t become the sixth-largest economy in the world by spectating.”