Trump's Attempt To Roll Back Fuel Economy Standards Continues To Blow Up In His Face

We may earn a commission from links on this page.
Image for article titled Trump's Attempt To Roll Back Fuel Economy Standards Continues To Blow Up In His Face
Photo: AP

The Trump administration formally proposed rolling back Obama-era fuel economy standards in August 2018, but two new reports suggest that the rollback may not end up happening at all. That’s thanks to some remarkable—even for this crew—incompetence.

The rollback was in part sold as a way to make cars cheaper for the consumers, since increasing fuel economy standards could make new cars more expensive, but that logic was quickly debunked by economists, who said that when factoring in fuel costs, making cars more fuel-efficient would actually be cheaper in the long run.

Still, the Trump administration and NHTSA persisted with its argument, even while, internally, the opposite view was shared by many within the EPA. What’s become apparent is that the Trump administration’s argument was at best a hasty attempt thrown together by officials who wanted to get the rollback over the line in any way possible, according to new reports in The Atlantic and The New York Times. More on this later, but for a lot of reasons that may also ultimately be its undoing.


From the NYT:

More basic issues holding up the regulations point to another problem: the skeleton crew of inexperienced political appointees who are heading the drafting process may not be up to a job that would usually be handled by career federal workers with decades of expertise.

The draft rule lacks two technical documents that experts say would be essential to defending it in court. By law, any major new policy affecting the environment requires an environmental-impact statement, but no such document has been completed or sent to the White House, according to people who have viewed the draft.

Those people say the draft rule also lacks what is known as a regulatory impact analysis, which is supposed to describe at length the legal, scientific, health and economic impacts of a major new rule.

It typically takes many months to complete — the analysis accompanying the original Obama rule ran to 1,217 pages and included supporting analyses by the National Academies of Science. But as of last month, that document was in bare-bones draft form at best, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Maybe, you think, it’s possible for this skeleton crew to still somehow get all of this stuff done before March 30, when fuel economy standards for vehicles built in 2022 must be established. Maybe, with a superhuman effort, the Trump administration can avoid having the Obama-era standards stay in place for another year or avoid having to ask for another delay. Maybe this crack team of

In January, administration staff members appointed by President Trump sent a draft of the scaled-back fuel economy standards to the White House, but six people familiar with the documents described them as “Swiss cheese,” sprinkled with glaring numerical and spelling errors (such as “Massachusettes”), with 111 sections marked “text forthcoming.”


Ah, nevermind.

More narratively, The Atlantic looked Wednesday at just how we got here to begin with. The short version is that the so-far failed rollback is the result of an internal battle between NHTSA and EPA. The EPA is tasked with measuring fuel economy—as you probably know from reading Monroney stickers in new car windows—but the power to actually set the fuel economy standards rests with NHTSA. The two agencies were a model of cooperation during the Obama era, The Atlantic reports, but under Trump things have changed:

Extensive interviews with key participants and a review of emails and documents reveal how this happened: The Trump administration kept the government’s top tailpipe-pollution experts from working on the tailpipe-pollution rule. For two years, rival bureaucrats at NHTSA and overworked Trump political appointees stonewalled the EPA team, blocked it from learning of the rollback, and prevented it from seeing analysis of the new rule. When the EPA engineers finally saw the flawed study and identified some of its worst errors, the same Trump officials ignored them.

This may have been a series of legally fatal blunders. The EPA team identified the phantom-vehicles problem early in the process. Within weeks of [Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient Vehicles Rule’s] publication in August 2018, analyses from outside economists and the Honda Motor Company vindicated the EPA team’s assessment. Those groups found that the SAFE study was a turducken of falsehoods: it cited incorrect data and made calculation errors, on top of bungling the basics of supply and demand. Not since 1999—when NASA engineers accidentally confused metric and imperial units when building and navigating the Mars Climate Orbiter, leading to the spacecraft’s eventual destruction—have federal employees messed up a calculation so publicly, and at such expense and scale. And the EPA team saw it coming.


Certainly a “turducken of falsehoods” seems like a bad thing.

None of this would be a problem for the Trump administration if not for federal law, which stipulates that rule changes at federal agencies can’t be arbitrary or capricious. But legal experts have said the Trump rules would have a hard time meeting that standard as there are no environmental benefits and also no apparent benefits to consumers. The Washington Post reported last month that a revised draft of NHTSA’s own proposal projected that it would cost drivers $34 billion more than under the Obama rules.


And if it can’t meet the arbitrary or capricious standard, it’s likely to be struck down in court, something this administration has a good amount of experience with. Of all the stats in The Atlantic’s story this one is perhaps the most astounding:

Historically, regulatory agencies win about 70 percent of their court challenges, Lienke said. Yet under the Trump administration, agencies have lost more than 90 percent of their cases, according to an ongoing tally from the Institute for Policy Integrity.


The Obama-era standards call for automakers’ output to average 54 mpg by 2025, while the Trump standards propose to roll that back to 40 mpg by 2026. The Obama standards could have been much more strict, but they look rosy in comparison to what’s on Trump’s menu. Trump said in 2017 he wanted to roll back the rule to increase jobs, as part of an apparent agreement with automakers. Still, somewhat tellingly, the UAW opposes the Trump rules, and others say it will cost jobs.

And so, to recap, the Trump rules are worse for the environment, are more expensive, and may lead to fewer jobs, not more.


Why are we doing this again? We may not, in fact, be doing this in the end but if we don’t it’ll either be an almost inspiring story of how expertise prevailed over politics or a laughably incompetent attempt to impose bad public policy just because, pick your poison. Either way, I’m sure we’ll hear more from Trump about it, since Michigan is a swing state and the election is swiftly approaching. Whether the proposal dies or just remains in limbo, Trump will find someone to blame.