Photo: AP

There have been rumblings about this for a while now, but on Thursday morning the Environmental Protection Agency made it official with a proposal to freeze fuel economy standards at 2020 levels until 2026. Kind of amazingly, this is in part because the EPA argues that lighter, more fuel-efficient cars are more dangerous.

The proposal will further heat up a legal battle with the state of California, which sets its own pollution rules under a decades-old waiver. Should that waiver remain in place, automakers face the prospect of having to build cars for different markets, though the Trump administration has signaled that they will challenge the waiver in the courts, buoyed by the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.

But back to today’s news. Obama-era rules aimed for average fuel economy to 46.8 mpg in 2026, but the Trump administration would cut that number to 37 mpg. Here’s more from Reuters:

The proposal from the U.S. Transportation Department and Environmental Protection Agency would freeze fuel efficiency standards at 2020 levels through 2026, and require dramatically fewer electric vehicles as more people continue to drive gasoline-powered vehicles.

The administration said the freeze would boost U.S. oil consumption by about 500,000 barrels of oil a day by the 2030s, and save 12,700 traffic fatalities — or up to 1,000 per year — by reducing the price of new vehicles by prodding people to buy newer, safer vehicles more quickly.

Environmental groups criticized the assertion about reducing crash deaths, and said the proposal would drive up gasoline prices and reverse one of the most significant steps Washington has taken to curb climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions. It would also put more lives at risk due to asthma-inducing emissions, they said.

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The proposal is also a boon for automakers, at least in the short-term.

The proposal, the Transportation Department says, would dramatically shrink projected regulatory costs for automakers by $319 billion through 2029; it would reduce by more than $60 billion what General Motors Co (GM.N), Ford Motor Co (F.N) and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV (FCHA.MI) each would have been expected to spend to comply with the Obama rules. Toyota Motor Corp would save $34 billion (7203.T) and Volkswagen AG $20 billion (VOWG_p.DE) over estimated costs.

I’m skeptical that, long-term, automakers will see much benefit, as gas prices rise and consumers naturally gravitate toward more fuel-efficient and electrified vehicles anyway. And who’s to say that the automakers don’t spend most of or all of that money on fuel efficiency in the end?

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Odder still is their argument that lighter, more fuel-efficient cars are actually more dangerous than their heavier counterparts. This is true, to an extent, but it’s also misleading, since the safest situation would be for everyone to drive small, light cars, and for their to be fewer heavy cars on the road. A light car will lose in a collision with a heavy car on the road, but the real question is whether that heavy car should be there to begin with.

None of this may end up mattering, since automakers don’t necessarily enjoy making cars heavy just for the hell of it. That’s raw materials they have to pay for, and fuel-economy losses that their competitors will be sure to take advantage of. And yet it’s still odd to see our government rolling back standards for—whose benefit again? Oh, right, mostly Big Oil.

You can read the whole proposal here.