On Tuesday the Trump administration significantly weakened the most important existing regulation limiting planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions: the “Clean Car Standards,” which were also set to save consumers billions of dollars by making new cars and trucks use less fuel.
The newly watered-down regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation require that auto manufacturers make vehicles more efficient and less polluting by only about 1.5 percent per year through 2026—far less than the Obama-mandated 5 percent requirement, and even less than the improvements manufacturers say they will make without any regulation. According to a recent analysis, by 2040 this rollback is likely to add 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, cost Americans more than $244 billion dollars at the pump, and cause $190 billion in public health harms—including more than 18,000 premature deaths from respiratory disease, caused by additional soot and smog that will be emitted over the lifetime of more polluting vehicles.
As with its other efforts to roll back consumer and environmental protections, the administration has relied on analysis so shoddy that it ought not to survive judicial scrutiny. In a brazen attempt to justify the move, the administration is relying on a three-step playbook that it has used before: first, diversion; then, admission; and finally, cooking the books.
The Trump administration started the process of weakening the Clean Car Standards by attempting to distract the public from the true consequences of its actions. When the plan was first rolled out two years ago, the administration used a flashy but flawed diversion: safety. With new modeling, EPA and DOT suggested that the Clean Car Standards would increase car accidents. They even named the replacement rule the “SAFE rule,” though it set no safety standards (DOT has largely ignored its safety authority under the Trump administration). According to this analysis, an increase in car prices caused by the Clean Car Standards would lead to more cars on the road, and therefore more accidents. But the prediction that a price increase leads to more demand rather than less demand is inconsistent with the most basic precept of economics.
The problem with distraction is that it won’t hold up in court. When judges evaluate regulations, they look at the evidence in the record, not at the press release. So distractions like phony safety claims are not a good legal strategy for actual deregulation.
Forced to grapple with the legal vulnerability of their flawed proposal but ideologically committed to its rollback, the agencies made the next move: admission. EPA and DOT recognized that repealing the Clean Car Standards would impose more costs on society than benefits and moved forward anyway. After seeing a leaked draft of the rollback, Sen. Tom Carper revealed in January that the agencies virtually abandoned the safety distraction. Rather, the economic analysis accompanying the draft showed that the agencies intended to knowingly impose $41 billion in net harm to society (even after accounting for all of the claimed benefits of the move) over the lifetime of the vehicles subject to the standards.
But conceding that their regulation will do more harm than good was just not politically or legally tenable for the Trump administration. And so, in the newly released final rule, it has tried a third tactic: cooking the books. DOT and EPA claim that “the overall benefits of the final standards outweigh [the] additional costs.” But that assertion rests on a series of analytical tricks to undercount the costs of the new standards and overcount the benefits.
The only way to make the math work involves an accounting trick the agencies apparently scrambled to cook up just days before the rule’s release (hardly the type of considered decision-making required by the courts). The agencies’ assertion that the benefits of the rollback exceed the costs is true only when they consider a “sensitivity analysis” in which they assume future vehicles will have extra features like more horsepower once fuel economy isn’t required (and ignore other sensitivity analyses that point strongly in the opposite direction). But even the agencies concede that the quantification of these benefits is too unreliable to include in their primary analysis. Moreover, the sticker price reductions that the agencies claim will be a core benefit of the rollback are premised on vehicles maintaining the same features beyond fuel economy. So, in a single document, the agencies are highlighting alleged consumer benefits from new features, while also assuming that there will be no new features, in order to get the price dips they seek. Without these tricks, the net costs of the rollback become apparent.
This isn’t the first time EPA has played the climate deregulation three-step. The Trump administration road-tested the approach in its repeal of the Clean Power Plan, a landmark regulation limiting emissions from power plants. When proposing to eliminate the rule, EPA focused on a diversion: an accounting gimmick showing a $33 billion reduction in costs that it hoped would distract from the massive loss of the rule’s benefits. After negative public scrutiny, EPA tried again, this time admitting it was willing to cause tens of billions of dollars more in net harm to Americans—including more than 1,000 yearly premature deaths from air pollution through 2037—in order to help its coal industry allies. But just as with the Clean Car Standards rollback, EPA ultimately recognized that a policy causing more harm than good was risky. So it cooked the books to make those premature deaths disappear. EPA deceptively concluded that repealing the Clean Power Plan would have no effect (even though, in announcing the repeal, President Donald Trump claimed, “no single regulation threatens our miners, energy workers, and companies more”).
Unable to merely distract or to play it straight, the agencies have settled on manipulating the evidence to roll back critical protections for Americans. If the administration’s track record is any indication, the courts are likely to see through this manipulation. But in the meantime, the end result will be substantial economic, climate, and public health harms.