White House Rolls Back Federal Mileage Standards, but Court Battle Looms

can be reached at pavel@aol.com
can be reached at pavel@aol.com
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The Trump administration rolled back federal fuel economy standards, claiming it will save consumers money and improve vehicle safety — in the process, triggering a legal battle that could extend beyond this year’s presidential election.

  • Automakers now must average a real-world 40.4 miles per gallon by 2025, down from 46.7 mpg.
  • The White House claims the rollback will save 3,300 lives by making newer, safer cars more affordable.
  • Critics contend vehicle operating costs actually will rise and as many as 10,000 more lives will be lost, among other things, due to increased air pollution.

President Donald Trump has long advocated a rollback of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards. The new “Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule” makes it official.

The administration unveiled a first draft in late 2018 — a plan even automakers found draconian. The revised plan created by the EPA and Department of Transportation, which jointly oversee CAFE, adopts a 1.5-percent annual increase during the 2021 through 2026 model years. By 2025, average fuel economy would reach 40.4 mpg, down from the prior 46.7 mpg target.

The administration claims the total cost of operating a new vehicle will be $1,400 less than under the old rules — money consumers could use to pay off college loans or to buy a home.

Cities like Los Angeles could see a return to smog alerts and severe health consequences. (Photo: Getty Images)

EPA chief Andrew Wheeler claimed during a media teleconference that the new rules “will get more Americans into newer, cleaner, safer vehicles” since they will be more affordable.

That was echoed by James Owen, Acting Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, forecasting the rollback will save 3,300 lives through 2029, and avoid 397,000 injuries.

Such arguments were roundly rejected by environmental and consumer groups when the initial draft standard was announced in 2018, and even key automakers like Ford suggested the administration went too far. The industry trade group, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, was more upbeat about the final mileage rules, which CEO John Bozzella sees as a middle ground between the original draft and the Obama-era standard.

The 2012 rules emerged from an unprecedented compromise between consumer groups, regulators and automakers. But, by mid-decade, manufacturers expressed concerns, pointing to the fast shift in public demand from high-mileage sedans and coupes to less efficient SUVs and pickups.

Even as they migrated by the millions from cars to trucks, however, studies consistently show strong public support for tough mileage guidelines — as critics quickly pointed out Tuesday, while raising questions about the assumptions used by the Trump Administration to come up with the new mileage requirements.

Fuel costs would go up. But the question is whether the rollback would reduce overall vehicle operating costs. (Photo: Getty Images)

If anything, the revisions will raise vehicle operating costs by a collective $300 billion through the end of the decade, according to David Friedman, vice president of advocacy for Consumer Reports.

As to safety, administration officials did downplay one of the most controversial arguments they used to support the original draft proposal — that if cars were more fuel-efficient Americans would drive more and thus have more crashes. Still, skeptics questioned whether there was anything to back up the idea that the rollback would boost demand for newer, safer vehicles.

If anything, less fuel-efficient vehicles will pump out more pollutants, said Paul Billings, the national director of public policy for the American Lung Association, which will result in the deaths of up to 10,000 more Americans by 2035 by increasing asthma and other respiratory ailments.

“This is moving in the wrong direction,” said Billings, adding that the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has revealed just how vulnerable those with pre-existing conditions are.

The Trump administration is already facing a series of legal battles over its decision to withdraw the California waiver allowing that state to set even tougher emissions standards. Officials acknowledged that further litigation is likely but said they are ready to defend the fuel economy rollback.


President Trump has long called for a rollback in federal fuel economy standards and the White House took steps to formalize a sharp cut this week. But it is yet uncertain whether the new mandate will survive a court challenge — or the possible election of a Democrat to replace Trump next November. In the meantime, most automakers say they will stand by, waiting to see the outcome before altering their own fuel economy strategies.

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