EPA, CAFE, CARB, & Trump: A Battle Looms Over Fuel Economy Standards


An epic battle is brewing between the EPA and CARB. Back in 2009, the US auto industry was on the ropes. GM in particular was facing bankruptcy and Chrysler stood on the brink of going out of business altogether. Then Uncle Sugar swooped in with offers of bailouts and loan guarantees. The car companies all stood up like eager Cocker Spaniels and said, “Yes, please. We would love some of those treats you have there.” The feds said there was a catch, though. “To get the goodies, you must first agree to a new CAFE standard of 54.5 mpg by the year 2025.”

US EPA sets fuel economy standards

“Yes, Uncle Sugar,” the car companies all replied. “We would be honored to make that promise to our dear Uncle who loves us and has such deep pockets.” And so the deal was done, the money flowed, and the industry recovered enough to establish new sales records for cars and light trucks in the US in 2015 and again in 2016. Then The Trump Who Stole Democracy came to town and the car companies immediately started talking out of the other side of their mouths.

“Oh, Mr. Trump, Mr. Trump. Please don’t be making us stick to the those promises we made 6 years ago. We were held hostage. We signed under duress. That mean ol’ Obama forced us to do it. Cut us some slack, dear kindhearted Mr. Trump, and roll back those fuel economy standards we all agreed to, cuz otherwise we won’t be able to sell every high-profit, gas-guzzling luxobarge we can weld, bolt, and screw together. We sure do like making a killing on those big vehicles, so you gotta get us off the hook here. And besides, a million or more American workers who all voted for you are going to lose their high-paying jobs if you don’t help us out.”

“No problem,” The Trump said. “I’ll just stick my close personal friend Scott Pruitt in as the head of the EPA. He hates the EPA. Loathes it the way a crime boss loathes competition. He’ll fix you right up.” And so it came to be, thanks to a compliant Congress that took one look at The Trump’s Cabinet full of Horribles and said, “Yes, sir. That’s a fine group of Americans The Trump has nominated. We’ll approve all of them except for that Secretary of Labor guy who runs a business where sexual harassment is on the menu at every one of his many restaurants. Even we have limits!”

The Evil Pruitt is now in a position to give the car companies what they so desperately want. The only question is, can Pruitt undo the regulations that Obama’s EPA — the one that actually gave a rat’s patoot about protecting people from premature health issues and death — set in place? The answer is, as usual, “It depends.”

California is the eye of the hurricane. It has been agitating for stricter emissions standards since the late 60s. When it comes to aggressive environmental policies, it is Ground Zero for the treehugger movement in the US. Things would be different if one sixth of all cars and light trucks weren’t sold in California, but they are, which makes The Golden State the tail that wags the dog when it comes to the auto industry.

No company can afford to ignore California if it wants to sell cars in the US market. “For the past 50 years, California has led the country and the world when it comes to clean cars,” Margo Oge, who directed EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality from 1994 to 2012, tells The Washington Post.

California gets away with its stranglehold on emissions standards because none other than Republican godhead Ronald Reagan signed legislation giving the EPA authority to grant a waiver of national emissions standards to any state that wanted to enact tougher standards. Only once in history has an administration refused to grant such a waiver. That was near the end of the Bush II follies and the Obama administration quickly overrode that anomaly.

But here’s the thing, boys and girls. Before leaving office, the EPA granted California a waiver to keep up its clean air program all the way until 2025. So the issue is not whether the EPA under Pruitt could refuse to grant a new waiver. The issue is whether the EPA can rescind a waiver it has already granted. That is a horse of a completely different color.

If Pruitt tries to undo what has already been done, CARB will scream bloody murder and its lawyers will be marching up the steps of the nearest federal courthouse within minutes. They are probably working on their motions and briefs this very minute. “There is no precedent for revoking a waiver, and there doesn’t appear to be a pathway in the Clean Air Act for doing that,” says Dan Becker, founder of the Safe Climate Campaign.

Who will win? No one knows, but it will be an epic legal battle that will end up before the Supreme Court eventually. And all in the name of greed by car companies who have aggressively opposed every safety and fuel economy proposal by the federal government since the Eisenhower administration. Nothing ever changes. It’s profits over people every time. America’s top car company executives should all be ashamed of themselves.

Source: The Atlantic

About the Author

I have been a car nut since the days when Rob Walker and Henry N. Manney, III graced the pages of Road & Track. Today, I use my trusty Miata for TSD rallies and occasional track days at Lime Rock and Watkins Glen. If it moves on wheels, I'm interested in it. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.
  • Ed

    I know this is repetitive, but even if you don’t give a RA about the environment, what about jobs?! The US had horrific job losses in the 1970s and 80s when Japan grabbed market share from a stumbling Detroit. Detroit seemed to spend more effort on lobbying Congress that on engineering solutions to the new requirements. If only Detroit had focused on MEETING standards instead of repealing them, our world would be different today. From a speech several years ago:


    • Rick Danger

      With all due respect, Ed, in honor of Steve’s prancing prose, it’s “give a RP”.
      Why does “rat’s patoot” make me smile out loud?? 😀

  • PeteDisqus321

    Excellent summary. Bailing out the banks and the automakers was a terrible idea. Sometimes things are so institutionally dysfunctional you have to start over.

    • Steve Hanley

      Capitalism is about “creative destruction” and thinning the herd so newer, stronger competitors can thrive. It’s cruel and relentless but Western Civilization is built on that model.

      The corporatocracy wants no part of capitalism, though. It wants government to protect it against all external threats so its members can have eternal existence. The pity is that tax payers get stuck wih the bill.

      “Shameful,” as The Donald might say, himself a prime example of somewhat who feels he should be above it all, where normal rules do not apply.

      • Epicurus

        Right. Rule #1 for big business is, “privatize the profits, socialize the losses.” This is the essence of fascism, isn’t it–the merger of state and corporate power?

    • Epicurus

      Bailing out the banks was terrible (because there is a procedure in place for replacing ownership and management and changing the name on the door), but if the auto companies had not been bailed out, the entire American auto industry would have disappeared, affecting millions of jobs not only in them directly but in all the companies which did business with them.

      • PeteDisqus321

        When capitalism fails, I’ve no objection to governments stepping in to avert disaster. What I object to is governments stepping in to replicate and richly reward failing structures and institutions.

        • Epicurus

          Agreed. It could have been done better.

  • Epicurus

    Thank you, California. What would we do without you?

  • PrezNixon

    The new administration could simply revoke the clause in the Clear Air Act that allows California to have any waivers at all.

    They would sell it as being good for business to reduce regulations businesses face, and having just one federal standard, instantly killing the ability for states to follow any other standard that the federal standard.

    People seem to think that the current administration is somehow bound to keep the law as it is. But they can simply pull the entire rug out from under all waivers California has been granted. California has long been a thorn in their sides, and their base would love to stick it to California, no matter the consequences.

    We aren’t dealing with rational actors.

    • Steve Hanley

      Not sure I agree with you. Revoking an existing law requires congressional action. There is a bill in the House to abolish the EPA in its entirety. Not sure how that will play to the voters, however.

      What would happen to 40 years of EPA rules and regulations if it is abolished? No one knows. As you say, we are not dealing with rational actors here. No doubt the courts would get involved and where that would lead is anyone’s guess.

      Interesting times.

      • Rick Danger

        Steve, we’re going to need a reset button after Trump either resigns or is thrown out.

        • Steve Hanley

          Wish I shared your optimism…….

      • PrezNixon

        Yes, it would require congressional action.