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Misfiring on All Cylinders: New York Times' Attack on Pruitt's Fuel Economy Reset

On Monday, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Scott Pruitt announced that the Obama EPA’s greenhouse gas emission standards for model year 2022-2025 cars and light trucks are too stringent and should be revised. On the same day, the New York Times denounced Pruitt’s decision in an editorial titled “Unclean at Any Speed: Pruitt’s Attack on Obama’s Auto Pollution Rule.”

The editorial’s most egregious error is the alarmist message conveyed by the title—the insinuation that Pruitt’s revision of the 2022-2025 standards will render American cars “unclean” and endanger public health with higher levels of “pollution.” That, as explained below, is nonsense. But first let’s clarify the nature of the regulations at issue.

Motor Vehicle Greenhouse Gas Standards Are De-Facto Fuel Economy Standards

Motor vehicle greenhouse gas standards implicitly and substantially regulate fuel economy. As the Obama EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) explained in their first joint rulemaking in May 2010, carbon dioxide constitutes 94.9 percent of vehicular greenhouse gas emissions, and “there is a single pool of technologies . . . that reduce fuel consumption and thereby carbon dioxide emissions as well” (75 FR 25372). Thus, Pruitt will coordinate his reduction of the 2022-2025 greenhouse gas standards with a corresponding reduction in NHTSA’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. Under the agencies’ second joint rulemaking in December 2011, CAFE standards were set to peak at 54.5 mpg in 2025 (76 FR 74685).

Unlike all other motor vehicle emission standards, but exactly like the fuel economy standards they mimic, motor vehicle greenhouse gas standards do not apply to individual vehicles but to entire fleets or segments of fleets on average. That is inevitable because commercially-viable on-board carbon-capture technologies do not yet exist. A vehicle’s greenhouse gas emissions profile depends not on its emission control systems but on all the factors affecting its fuel consumption such as weight, size, engine and power train designs, and aerodynamic properties.

The Times Ignores CAFE’s Adverse Impact on Vehicle Affordability

According to the Times, “The only conceivable beneficiaries of Mr. Pruitt’s scheme” are “the automakers, whose trade groups and lobbyists have been pressuring the White House for more lenient rules.” The Times turns a blind eye to the largest and most important class of “conceivable beneficiaries”: consumers. Relaxing the 2022-2025 standards will reduce the average cost of new vehicles delivered to showrooms in those years.

For lower- and middle-income households, the cost increases projected for the 2022-2025 standards are not trivial. The National Auto Dealers Association estimates the Obama EPA/NHTSA standards will add $3,000 to the cost of new motor vehicles by 2025. That has the potential to price millions of low-income households out of the market for new cars and light trucks.

Heritage Foundation study estimates the Obama greenhouse gas/fuel economy mandates initiated in 2009 have increased new car prices $6,800 above the pre-2009 baseline trend. The study further estimates that freezing the standards at the 2016 level would save buyers $3,400 per vehicle on average in 2025, while repealing all the Obama standards would save buyers $5,900.

The Times Ignores CAFE’s Adverse Impact on Vehicle Safety

Greenhouse gas/fuel economy standards encourage automakers to reduce average vehicle size and weight. That is hardly surprising. It takes less fuel to move smaller, lighter vehicles than it does to move bigger, heavier ones. However, size and weight reduction has a downside. As my colleague Sam Kazman pungently puts it in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, fuel economy mandates kill people. It’s a matter of basic physics. Lighter vehicles have less mass to absorb collision forces, while smaller cars provide less space between the occupant and the point of impact.

A 2002 National Academy of Sciences study concluded that size and weight reductions attributable to CAFE contributed to between 1,300 and 2,600 deaths in 1993 and 10 times as many serious injuries (p. 27). That was when the CAFE standard was 27.5 mpg—about half the Obama administration’s standard for 2025.

Yes, cars are becoming safer. Thanks to technological advances such as rearview cameras and automatic breaking, auto safety keeps improving. However, take any high-tech vehicle and add weight to it, and it will be safer still—and it will consume more fuel and emit more carbon dioxide. Greenhouse gas/fuel economy mandates prevent many consumers from obtaining all the vehicle safety they would otherwise be able to buy.

The Times Believes EPA Should Act as if Obama Were Still President

Pruitt intends to leave the Obama standards intact through model year 2021, which means regulatory stringency will increase for another three years. As the Times acknowledges, notwithstanding its hysterical headline, what Pruitt proposes are adjustments, not “wholesale revisions.”

Evidently, what’s really bugging the Times is the broader policy shift of which Pruitt’s modest proposal is a part—or maybe it’s just that Trump is president:

[Pruitt’s proposed revisions] would continue Mr. Trump’s yearlong demolition of every important policy Barack Obama put in place to fight global warming. The Clean Power Plan to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants? Consigned to the dustbin. America’s participation in the historic Paris agreement on global warming? Withdrawn. John Kerry’s decision when he was secretary of state to block the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada? Revoked.

Lest the Times editorial board forget, in a democracy, elections are supposed to determine the broad direction of national policy. President Trump campaigned on a pro-growth, pro-manufacturing, energy agenda. He won and the heir apparent to President Obama’s climate policy legacy lost. If that’s their reason for bashing Pruitt, they should just say so.

Federal Law Preempts State Regulation of Fuel Economy

Quoting California attorney general Xavier Becerra, the Times opines that automakers will regret Pruitt’s decision because the state is “prepared to take any and all legal action” to protect the Obama standards. Such action could include enforcing those standards within the borders of California and 13 other states that participate in California’s vehicle emissions program. Conflicting federal and state standards would fracture the American car and light truck market, the Times warns, adding: “Automakers don’t need that headache and expense.”

“Part of the genius of the Obama program was that it harmonized California’s rules and federal rules,” the Times contends. The editorial warns that if EPA tries to revoke the 2009 waiver authorizing California’s motor vehicle greenhouse gas standards, the result would be “a legal donnybrook that Mr. Pruitt has no guarantee of winning and would make his efforts look even more feckless and destructive.”

The Times neglects to mention there would be no need to harmonize federal and California greenhouse gas standards if the Obama administration had not authorized Sacramento to regulate motor vehicle greenhouse gas emissions in the first place. The national fuel economy statute, the 1975 Energy Policy Conservation Act, specifically preempts states from adopting or enforcing laws or regulations “related to fuel economy standards.” As explained above, greenhouse gas and fuel economy standards are highly related.

Moreover, the alleged “harmony” of the so-called National Vehicle Program—a Rube Goldberg scheme in which three agencies, EPA, NHTSA, and the California Air Resources Board (CARB), effectively regulate fuel economy through three sets of rules under three statutes—was never more than an uneasy truce primed to fall apart whenever California does not get its way.

The Obama administration knew full well that because greenhouse gas and fuel economy standards are convertible, California could effectively determine fuel economy standards for the nation as a whole just by increasing the stringency of its greenhouse gas standards. Indeed, the Obama administration deputized CARB to set de facto mileage standards for two well-known reasons. First, CARB’s regulatory ambitions exceed those of NHTSA, the only agency authorized by Congress to prescribe fuel economy standards. Second, California legislators and bureaucrats are not accountable to voters in the states that produce the vast majority of America’s automobiles.

It is now painfully obvious that “harmony” exists only as long as EPA and NHTSA dance to CARB’s tune. If any subsequent administration dares make what the Times acknowledges are mere “adjustments” in the Obama greenhouse gas/fuel economy standards, California will threaten to de-couple from the “harmonized” program and balkanize the U.S. auto market.

The solution to this problem, which many free marketers hope Mr. Pruitt will seriously consider, is to challenge California’s de facto fuel economy standards as plainly incompatible with the letter and intent of Energy Policy Conservation Act.

Much Ado about Nothing

The Obama administration estimated that, by 2100, all of its motor vehicle greenhouse gas standards for the 13-year period spanning model years 2012-2025 would reduce global average surface temperatures by only 0.0076 to 0.0184°C and sea level rise by only 0.074–0.166 cm, “based on a range of climate sensitivities” (76 FR 75097). So even assuming high climate sensitivity, the cumulative impact of the standards would be vanishingly small and very likely unverifiable 80 years from now. To achieve those underwhelming results, automakers would have to invest $155 billion during 2012-2025 (76 FR 75298).

But there’s even less to it than that. The Times assures us that regardless of what federal and California regulators do, U.S. automakers will keep making cars “cleaner” to keep up with the competition:

Finally, there is scant evidence that the automakers want to slow the steady march toward cleaner cars. Mary Barra, General Motors’ chief executive, has expressed support for the current nationwide standards, which can only improve Detroit’s competitiveness in an increasingly climate-conscious global market. Though sales of electric vehicles represent barely 1 percent of global car sales, China has a new zero-emission-vehicle mandate, which requires that 12 percent of new cars have no tailpipe emissions. France and Britain have pledged to end the sale of diesel and gas cars by 2040.

That is incoherent. If automakers are keen to build “cleaner cars” in order to compete in an “increasingly climate-conscious global market,” there is no need for federal or California bureaucrats to bend their ears and twist their arms. Beijing’s decree that 12 percent of all new cars sold in China be electric vehicles (EVs) may create an artificial market that U.S. automakers will be able to exploit—or maybe not. Some experts expect the actual Chinese quota in 2020 to be as low as 4 percent. Even if it turns out to be 12 percent, China imposes huge import taxes to protect its domestic automakers.

In any event, U.S. companies don’t need a domestic sales mandate to game China’s EV mandate. More importantly, standards that push automakers to ramp up production of EVs are anti-competitive. Moody’s estimates that automakers lose $7,000 to $10,000 on each EV sold. Unlike EV sales, which the Times acknowledges account for barely 1 percent of the global market, demand for SUVs, crossovers, and other light trucks is booming and expected to increase through 2025.

The Times should clean up its polluted rhetoric

It is sheer demagoguery to suggest that Pruitt’s modest adjustments to the Obama emission standards will make cars “unclean at any speed.” The standards apply to carbon dioxide emissions, and carbon dioxide is not an air pollutant. Yes, it is a greenhouse gas, but so is water vapor. Like oxygen, carbon dioxide is a clear, odorless gas that is a vital component of clean air on planet Earth.

The auto emissions that chiefly impact air quality are nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, which form ozone smog in the presence of heat and sunlight, and soot particles from incomplete combustion. Due to advances in emission control technology and fuels, all new cars and trucks today are practically zero-pollution vehicles.

That is evident from any number of EPA webpages posted during previous administrations (see here, here, here, and here). The gist of this information is that “Compared to 1970 vehicle models, new cars, SUVs and pickup trucks are roughly 99 percent cleaner for common pollutants (hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and particle emissions), while Annual Vehicle Miles Traveled has dramatically increased.”

A chart produced by the U.S. Auto Alliance quantifies this progress to the tenth of a percent:

With respect to smog-forming emissions, today’s vehicles are already 99.4 percent cleaner than vehicles manufactured before 1968. By 2025, vehicles will even cleaner.

Pruitt’s forthcoming revisions for model years 2022-2025 will, at most, freeze greenhouse gas/fuel economy standards at the 2021 level. That would not make vehicles “unclean.” Fuels and model year 2022-2025 cars and light trucks will still be subject to EPA’s latest standards for nitrogen oxides, organic emissions, and particulates, known as Tier 3, which run from 2017-2025. The Tier 3 program is projected to help reduce ambient levels of soot and smog levels through 2030. Nothing Pruitt proposes to do will change that.