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Why Trump wants to relax automotive fuel efficiency standards now

The Trump administration wants to roll back another federal regulation intended to reduce global warming. Obama-era automobile fuel efficiency rules require U.S. vehicles to increase mileage standards by an average of 5 percent per year from 2021 through 2026. Tuesday’s move would reduce the improvement threshold to 1.5 percent. The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin joins John Yang to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is hard to focus on anything aside from COVID-19 these days, but it is remains important to keep an eye on how the federal government is working in other ways.

    The Trump administration today moved to roll back another federal regulation intended to reduce global warming.

    As John Yang reports, today's announcement targeted automobile mileage standards.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, today's proposal would undercut Obama administration fuel efficiency standards intended to combat climate change. It would require U.S. vehicles to improve mileage standards an average of 1.5 percent between 2021 through 2026, instead of 5 percent a year.

    Juliet Eilperin is senior national affairs correspondent for The Washington Post. She covers federal environmental policy. And she joins us by Skype.

    Juliet, how big a deal is this?

  • Juliet Eilperin:

    This is quite significant.

    It affects the cars, trucks and SUVs that Americans across the country drive and will be driving for decades to come, because while this affects, obviously, the kind of cars that are built over the next seven years, people hold onto those cars for some time.

    So it really will have a tremendous effect in terms of what are the standards that auto manufacturers will meet and what's the kind of pollution and affordability of the cars that we will be driving.

  • John Yang:

    And what's the administration's rationale or justification for this change?

  • Juliet Eilperin:

    They are arguing that the Obama administration, who initially set carbon and fuel efficiency standards in 2009 and updated them in 2012, really set too stringent a target in the years to come, and that, in other words, they're too expensive for manufacturers to meet.

    And, as a result, they argue, Americans would actually hold on to older, dirtier cars rather than buying new.

  • John Yang:

    And who are the opponents of today's proposal, and what are they saying in response?

  • Juliet Eilperin:

    There's a slew of groups that are opposed to this, starting with the state of California and more than a dozen other states and the District of Columbia who had adopted stringent standards, and are trying to push ahead with them, even though the administration is trying to hold them back.

    And they're joined by a coalition of environmental and public health groups, who argue that, for two reasons, you need to keep these standards place, one, because they address the kind of traditional air pollution that kills people, and, two, because they curb the CO2 that comes out of tailpipes and obviously contributes to climate change.

    So, for those reasons, they're adamantly opposed to making mileage standards lessened.

  • John Yang:

    And the auto industry is split on this; is that right?

  • Juliet Eilperin:

    Yes, that's one of the things that's really interesting.

    It was the auto industry that initially asked President Trump within a matter of days of him taking office that they wanted to relax these standards, but they in some ways had second thoughts, because they thought that there could be a compromise between the Trump administration and, again, state officials in California and other states who did want to see cleaner cars and trucks.

    And so they had assumed that they would meet somewhere in the middle. Instead, what they saw was this split. And so you had a handful of major manufacturers, including, for example, Ford and Honda and BMW, who reached agreement last summer with California, saying that they would go ahead and meet the stricter standards.

    And then you have others, such as GM and Chrysler, who said, no, we will just abide by what the Trump administration is going to do. This has caused a real dilemma for auto manufacturers, because they may face competing standards. And no matter what, there'll be an extended legal fight that will leave this question unanswered for some time to come.

  • John Yang:

    So, I mean, talk about that legal fight. Who's fighting? It's the states. And are some of the automakers joining that fight?

  • Juliet Eilperin:

    It's a little unclear, although it is true that, for example, when some of these auto manufacturers struck a deal in July with California, part of the agreement was that they would defend California's right to set its own standard.

    So, you could easily see some of the auto manufacturers siding with the administration and some siding with California and the states who want stricter mileage standards. They will certainly be joined by, as we said, almost every major environmental group and multiple attorneys general, particularly from Democratic states.

    You will see some of those also arguing that they have a vested interest in cutting the pollution from cars and trucks, because it affects everything, from climate impacts to their states, to the air that their citizens breathe.

  • John Yang:

    Deregulation has been a big part of what the Trump administration and what President Trump has wanted to accomplish.

    Is there any sense that they're moving things forward to get it in before the election?

  • Juliet Eilperin:

    They are absolutely advancing their deregulatory agenda on this front and many others.

    When I talk to some of the Trump administration officials, as well as the career folks who work with them, they are keenly aware of the fact that there is a provision called the Congressional Review Act, which allows a president and Congress to overturn regulations if they are enacted within 60 days.

    And so this was, for example, a very effective tool that Republicans used once Trump came into office to overturn some of the last rules that the Obama administration took — put in place.

    The Trump officials are keenly aware if, under some scenario, they lose the White House and Democrats gain control of the Senate, while holding on to the House, some of their policies could also be overturned.

    So what we're seeing right now is a real push to finalize some of their highest-priority rollbacks, so that they can stay in place even if you have a new president.

  • John Yang:

    Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post, thank you very much.

  • Juliet Eilperin:

    Very welcome.

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