Your current web browser is outdated. For best viewing experience, please consider upgrading to the latest version.


Send a question or comment using the form below. This message may be routed through support staff.

Email Article

Main Error Mesage Here
More detailed message would go here to provide context for the user and how to proceed
Main Error Mesage Here
More detailed message would go here to provide context for the user and how to proceed
search DONATE
Close Nav

The Only Thing 'Poisonous' About the Trump Fuel Economy Standards Is the Rhetoric

back to top

The Only Thing 'Poisonous' About the Trump Fuel Economy Standards Is the Rhetoric

Orange County Register August 27, 2018
Energy & EnvironmentRegulations

Gov. Jerry Brown has called the Trump administration’s proposal to freeze Obama-era fuel economy standards at the 2020 target of about 37 miles a gallon a “cynical and meretricious abuse of power” that will “poison our air and jeopardize the health of all Americans.”

He’s also vowed to sue the federal government and fight the Trump administration “in every conceivable way possible,” should it exercise the authority clearly given to it in the Clean Air Act and enforce nationwide fuel-economy standards, overriding California’s current waiver for higher state standards.

But before we launch into an “environmental civil war,” as some politicians and pundits have called it, far better for both sides to stand down and calmly evaluate what is actually being proposed.

What is being proposed is freezing Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards, commonly known as CAFE standards, at the level proposed — by the Obama administration — at the levels mandated for 2020 (around 38.5 mpg for all cars and light trucks overall) instead of spiking to about 49.5 mpg by 2025.

By making new cars more expensive, more consumers will forgo new cars and drive their less efficient — and less safe — cars longer.

This is not a radical idea. In fact, nearly every carmaker in America — Tesla notwithstanding — agrees that the 2025 target was technologically and economically unrealistic.

By making new cars more expensive, more consumers will forgo new cars and drive their less efficient — and less safe — cars longer.

This is the point that Gov. Brown and many well-intentioned environmentalists don’t seem to understand. Claims that freezing CAFE standards at the 2020 levels will destroy the planet because of increased greenhouse gas emissions and lead to thousands of premature deaths from new vehicles spewing pollution are — to put it bluntly — nonsense.

Let’s start with vehicle pollution oxides of nitrogen, and particulates, the two pollutants that are linked to heart and lung disease. The Environmental Protection Agency’s current new vehicle emissions mandate for those pollutants, known as the “Tier 3” standards, are based on emissions per mile driven; they have nothing do with a vehicle’s mpg. Regardless of whether a new car gets 50 mpg or 20 mpg, under the standards, the maximum amount of NOx and particulates emissions is the same. Changing the CAFE standards won’t affect those emissions at all.

The Tier 3 standards also reduced the maximum amount of sulfur in gasoline to just 10 parts-per-million. Compared with emissions of sulfur dioxide from coal-fired power plants, emissions from new gasoline power vehicles, even at the 37-mpg level, are tiny.

For example, the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that sulfur dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants will be over one million tons this year. By comparison, based on the EIA’s forecast of new vehicle sales this year, in a recent report I prepared for the Manhattan Institute, I estimated that new vehicles sold this year will emit just 27 tons of sulfur dioxide.

Although new chemical processes have been developed recently to reduce sulfur content in gasoline to just 2 parts per million, the process isn’t economic. And the benefit of eliminating those last few tons of sulfur from gasoline would have no impact on air quality; not when coal-fired power plants are emitting one million tons each year.

The Obama-era mpg standards were also supposed to encourage a switch to electric vehicles. But EVs are only as clean as the electricity that is used to power them. And in that same Manhattan Institute report, I estimated that new gasoline-powered vehicles would emit less sulfur dioxide and less NOx than EVs.

Sounds impossible: After all, replacing a 30-year old, smoke-belching Ford with a new EV will reduce pollution. But that’s the wrong comparison. The right one is to compare the difference in emissions between an EV and a new gasoline-powered one. And new gasoline engines are really clean. Today’s vehicles emit only about 1% of the pollution they did in the 1960s, and new innovations continue to improve those engines’ efficiency and cleanliness.

Furthermore, the energy for that EV doesn’t come from nowhere. Cars are charged from the nation’s electrical grid, which means that they’re only as “clean” as America’s mix of power plants. Those are getting cleaner, but we still generate power mainly by burning fossil fuels: natural gas is our biggest source of electricity, and is projected to increase. And coal, while declining slowly, will remain the second largest source of electricity for a long time.

Even with large increases in wind and solar generation, the EIA projects that the nation’s electric generating mix will be just 30% renewable by 2030. Consequently, the average electric vehicle will emit more NOx and sulfur dioxide than new internal combustion vehicles, even under the proposed mpg freeze.

As for carbon dioxide and climate change, between 2021 and 2050, the freeze of mpg standards at 2020 levels will increase U.S. CO2 emissions by an average of about 10 million tons per year, or around 300 million tons total over the 30-year period. By comparison, in 2017, total U.S. energy-related CO2 emissions were estimated at 5.1 billion tons. World energy-related CO2 emissions were estimated at 33.4 billion tons, and have been increasing by almost 500 million tons each year. The impacts of the Trump proposal on CO2 emissions is miniscule by comparison and will have no measurable impact on the global climate.

Denouncing the freeze on CAFE standards at 2020 levels as somehow “poisonous” to the environment and a threat to Californians — and the planet, for that matter — may make for good political theater. But a dispassionate examination of the facts, as is so often the case, tells an entirely different story.

This piece originally appeared in the Orange County Register


Jonathan A. Lesser, PhD, is the president of Continental Economics, an economic litigation and consulting firm. He is the author of the new report, Short Circuit: The High Cost of Electric Vehicle Subsidies.