IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Trump's new fuel economy rules won't lead to 'cleaner and safer' cars, say industry experts

Since automakers operate on a global scale and battery cars are being mandated in much of the rest of the world, it makes more sense to bring them to market in the U.S.
Image: FILE PHOTO: A highway carpool lane sits empty as traffic makes its way into Los Angeles
A highway carpool lane sits empty as traffic makes its way into Los Angeles on March 29, 2017.Mike Blake / Reuters file

The Trump administration formally announced plans Thursday to strip away the waiver that had allowed California to set its own fuel economy mandates, while also confirming that a rollback of federal mileage rules will be revealed in the coming weeks.

Echoing the words of President Donald Trump, two senior White House officials said the moves would make tomorrow’s cars cleaner and safer, while also creating more U.S. jobs.

As for the battery-electric vehicles the Obama-era rules would have encouraged, Andrew Wheeler, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, dismissed them as little more than toys for the rich being subsidized by less affluent American motorists.

While Wheeler said he hopes the administration’s moves will gain widespread support, that seems questionable. Several major automakers have already laid out plans to expand production of electric vehicles and other high-mileage models, despite Trump's rollback, and 14 states plus the District of Columbia have adopted the tougher California standards.

The EPA chief stressed that the move to block California from setting greenhouse gas standards will not impact its ability to regulate other pollutants, such as ozone, adding that, “We hope the state will focus on these issues rather than trying to set fuel economy standards for the rest of the country.”

The elimination of California’s ability to regulate CO2 and other greenhouse gases was announced first, administration officials acknowledged, in order to make it easier to defend against the anticipated legal challenges.

On Wednesday, during a news conference in Sacramento, California’s Attorney General Xavier Becerra made it clear the state will not readily accept losing its emissions waiver. “For us, this is about survival,” said Becerra. “Our communities are screaming for help to address the climate crisis. Unlike the Trump administration, we don’t run scared. We’re prepared to lead. We’re prepared to fight. We’ll do what we must.”

The administration will announce the second part of the mileage rules change in a matter of weeks, explained Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who appeared with Wheeler in Washington Thursday morning. Both the EPA and the DOT are jointly charged with regulating CAFE, the Corporate Average Fuel Economy regulations.

“The updated standards will be reasonable,” said Chao, indicating they likely will not be rolled back as much as the administration had first suggested during a news conference late last year.

What will be called the SAFE Vehicle mandate is expected to put substantially less pressure on automakers to switch away from conventional, gas-powered vehicles. “The rule will not force automakers to spend billions of dollars to build cars that American consumers do not want to buy or drive,” said Chao.

Wheeler was even blunter, pointing to what he claimed was an average $12,000 premium for battery-electric vehicles, a price penalty partially offset by taxpayer-funded incentives. More than half of the subsidies have been going to motorists making over $100,000 annually, the EPA chief said.

Meanwhile, automakers are funding development of the new technology by raising new vehicle prices to a record $39,000 average during the first quarter of 2019, Wheeler said, meaning “Americans are paying more for SUVs and trucks so automakers can sell cheaper electric vehicles”

Both Chao and Wheeler echoed comments President Trump made in a series of Wednesday tweets declaring revised rules would make vehicles “substantially SAFER,” while also “meaning significantly more JOBS, JOBS, JOBS!”

The administration’s logic is that conventional vehicles will cost less, encouraging more motorists to trade in on newer models with the latest safety and emissions equipment.

But whether that actually will play out is uncertain. For one thing, automakers operate on a global scale and battery cars are being mandated in much of the rest of the world. It actually makes more sense to also bring them to market in the U.S., moving forward, experts stressed.

One reason the industry may not back down on EV plans, several insiders told NBC News, is that the business requires long-term planning. With a presidential election coming in barely 14 months, and the re-election chances of the current president far from certain, automakers realize a new, Democratic administration could reenact tough mileage rules. That said, there is general support for adopting a single mileage standard. But even there, industry officials caution, they need to see if the move to strip California’s waiver will stand up to a court challenge.