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The potential consequences of the auto emissions rollback

Earlier this week, in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration relaxed automobile fuel efficiency standards that were put in place under the Obama administration to combat climate change. Coral Davenport, energy and environment policy reporter for The New York Times, joins Hari Sreenivasan for more on the potential consequences of the decision.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Earlier this week, in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration relaxed automobile fuel efficiency standards which were put in place under the Obama administration to combat climate change.I spoke with Coral Davenport, energy and environment policy reporter for The New York Times about the potential consequences of this ruling.

  • Coral Davenport:

    This is a rollback of the largest, the federal government's largest regulation on climate change ever. It was the first and largest regulation on climate change. It was something that President Trump has been working on since his first days in office. Already, the Trump administration has rolled back over a hundred environmental regulations in his first term. But this is by far the most consequential in terms of what the United States has done for climate change. And I think that is why it broke through.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Did the auto industry immediately push back when it went into effect or when the plans rolled out?

  • Coral Davenport:

    Well, the auto industry has been kind of muted on this, in part because it's just been completely slammed with both the economic impact, of course, of the coronavirus and the fact that companies are sort of wrangling with the White House over whether or not they're going to build ventilators. But there are now five major auto companies that have actually sided directly sided against the administration.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Is this because the auto manufacturers feel like, listen, I'm already planning on this, or is this the sort of California exception?

  • Coral Davenport:

    So here's what's going on with the auto companies. Several auto companies came to President Trump in the first days of his administration and said, look, the Obama administration has put in place this aggressive regulation on vehicle emissions. It's too hard for us to meet. We want some kind of relief from that. But what the auto companies were asking for was things like an extension of the deadlines or flexibility to kind of get credits for some of the things they were already doing. The Trump administration, President Trump said, 'OK, what I'm going to do is basically roll this whole thing back.' And the auto companies actually pushed back over the past few years and said, 'no, no, we're not asking for that.' Please do not roll the whole thing back. And here's why. They anticipated, correctly, that California and several other states which have moved forward aggressively in having state level emissions plans were going to sue the federal government. And there was a good chance that they would win. And if they did, what the auto companies could end up with is sort of a scenario, a scenario where the federal, the federal government has one set of vehicle pollution regulations and several states have a different set of vehicle pollution regulations. And that is the auto companies absolute nightmare scenario. That would give so much regulatory uncertainty, a complete different patchwork of different state and federal standards that they had to meet. And they're kind of looking down the barrel of that happening right now. So four companies joined with the state of California and said, 'look, we're just going to agree to meet these California standards. We don't want to do what the Trump administration is doing. We don't want to sort of, you know, head down a couple years of legal limbo while that, until this hits the Supreme Court and then not know what's going to happen and know that there's like a pretty decent chance that the Trump administration could end up losing and they could end up with this sort of nightmare split state regulatory regulatory scenario.'

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What are the health consequences of this?

  • Coral Davenport:

    The health consequences are significant. The Trump administration's own analysis found that it would lead to between 444 and a thousand more deaths as a result of, of worse air pollution. So these are deaths due to, premature deaths due to things like asthma, lung disease, other respiratory diseases. On the other side, the Trump administration said their numbers found that it would lead to 3,300 fewer deaths from auto fatalities. Their idea is that as a result of this regulation, cars will be about a thousand dollars cheaper. And their calculations are that consumers who are driving older cars will be more likely to give up those older, less safe cars and be more likely to buy newer, safer cars. And so that, ultimately that would lead to fewer fatalities on the road. And that is the calculation that the administration is making. Essentially, there will be more deaths as a result of dirtier air, but fewer deaths as a result of more people driving newer cars. But you can be assured that the legal opponents of this are going to challenge that math.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And finally, what about the economic consequences of adding this uncertainty in the marketplace at a time when the automakers are already trying to figure out how coronavirus, how deeply coronavirus will impact their bottom lines?

  • Coral Davenport:

    Well, here's another case where the administration's own numbers may well work against it. In the administration's own calculations they find that it could range between having an overall net benefit to the economy of about six billion dollars. That's very much as a result of those new cars being bought, fewer auto fatalities or ranging all the way to a net loss to the economy of $22 billion. And this is sort of depending on kind of what formulas you use, how much weight you put on some of these different economic consequences. And of course, those calculations were made before we entered into a public health fueled recession with a 13 percent unemployment rate. So, you know, this is going to hit an industry and an economy that is already reeling and already reeling from a public health crisis. And so it really remains to be seen what, how these numbers are actually going to play out.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right, Coral Davenport of the New York Times, thanks so much for joining us.

  • Coral Davenport:

    Thanks for having me.

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