Last week, the Trump administration and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) broke off talks about the future of fuel economy standards.
This termination, which is taking place shortly before the April 1 deadline for new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, poises the state of California for another legal clash with the federal government – along with 19 other states that follow California’s lead.
In order to grasp what this means for you and for the planet, it’s important to understand the history of CARB and fuel economy standards in the United States.
The history of fuel economy standards in the US.
Let’s rewind a few decades back to 1967…
During that time, air pollution in the state of California was a severe problem. Research had revealed a few years prior that the automotive industry was a key culprit. State governance took action, creating the California Air Resources Board (CARB). CARB is still active in advocating for healthy air quality, and often works with the automotive industry to this end.
It’s also vital to note that California is currently the only individual state permitted to set its own emissions and fuel economy standards, and it accomplishes this through CARB.
Jumping forward to the 21st century...
During the Obama administration, the US adopted more stringent programs to regulate fuel economy standards and tailpipe emissions. In particular, the Obama administration set Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) targets through 2026 with the goal of reducing oil imports, cutting down on emissions, improving public health, and saving consumers money on fuel.
These CAFE targets also mandated a mid-term review to ensure that the U.S. was on track to meeting these goals. As President Obama phased out of office in late 2016, the mid-term review was cancelled, with the administration saying that the goals could indeed be met.
Where we are now
With the arrival of the Trump administration in the White House, the mid-term review was reinstated for April 1, 2019. But the fact that the Trump administration broke off talks with CARB adds a big question mark to the future of fuel economy standards in the U.S.
“The expectation is that the [Trump] administration will freeze fuel efficiency standards at the previous levels agreed to for 2020,” said Michelle Krebs, Senior Industry Intelligence Director at Cox Automotive. Krebs added that the current administration holds the belief that the Obama-era standards would make vehicles more expensive and encourage people to keep their older vehicles that get worse fuel economy and have fewer safety features.
“Obviously, California argues that not moving ahead on tougher standards hurts public health and the environment,” Krebs said.
Automakers had agreed to the Obama administration’s standards with a mid-term review. Most have stated that they believe fuel economy standards should continue to become more stringent – and even if automakers aren’t sure that they want rules as strict as California’s, they’re not in favor of the standards being rolled back.
How electric vehicles play a part in this story
We’ve talked a bit about fuel economy and tailpipe emissions. How are those two things linked?
Simply put, the better the fuel economy, the lower the emissions from a vehicle, and the better it is for the environment.
Many people know that electric vehicles are better for the environment, and this is the main reason why. Since no fuels are burned with electric cars, they don’t have tailpipe emissions at all.
One specific CAFE target of the Obama administration was aimed at requiring new cars to achieve an average of 54.5 miles per gallon (MPG) by 2026. In order to achieve this, electric vehicles would have to become a much bigger part of the nation’s economy. Now that the Trump administration wants that number lowered to 29 MPG, it may change the story a bit.
“Standards in China and Europe are becoming much more stringent, with China requiring a certain percentage of sales being EVs,” Krebs said. “Rolling back standards puts the US out of step with the rest of the world.”
Currently, electric vehicles aren’t very profitable for automakers, only comprising a couple percentage points of market share. Having a 50-state standard for fuel emissions would help automakers generate profit from EVs; it would also result in more efficient product development and manufacturing, and would increase the possibility of achieving economies of scale.
What happens next?
Experts predict that the Trump administration will make a final decision regarding the fuel economy standards for model years 2022-2025 this spring. At that time, the state of California will likely take legal action against the Trump administration.
For more information on electric vehicles and their impact on the environment, click here.