Fuel efficiency: EPA emissions rollback will hurt rural pocketbooks, fuel economy and clean air

Thursday, April 12, 2018 5:30 PM
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The Environmental Protection Agency, under its embattled Administrator Scott Pruitt, announced last week that it will roll back Obama-era emissions standards for cars and light trucks. Those vehicles will no longer be required to average more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025.

That is a double loss for Americans who want to use less fuel, save money and cause less pollution. The move is a nod to the Trump base, to the petroleum industry and to automakers who feared that the costs of such improvements might slow sales of new vehicles.

One reason such a change is possible is that gas is still fairly cheap. After the 1973 energy crisis, manufacturers responded quickly to the need for fuel economy by making vehicles that were, for the most part, smaller, less peppy and arguably less safe because of weight savings. Now that fuel prices seem to have stabilized, demand for efficient cars has stalled.

That demand does exist, though, and many consumers might buy more fuel-efficient cars if fuel savings were available in the models they like to drive. Right now, that’s often not the case, and Pruitt has now pushed such availability further into the future.

President Donald Trump has loudly espoused the easing of federal regulations that he and his supporters believe hamper the economy, but good reasons exist for the higher standards.

Along with the easing of mileage standards comes an increase in emissions. Simply put, more fuel equals more pollution. According to the EPA in 2015, the transportation sector was responsible for 27 percent of U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases. That’s a problem.

California, with a high number of drivers in coastal cities, is threatening to sue the EPA for the right to continue requiring stricter emissions standards for vehicles there. Approximately 35 percent of the nation’s new auto sales are in California and in states that follow its standards. Smog is less noticeable in rural areas, but vehicular emissions are still harmful.

The world’s oil reserves, however large, are finite, and conservation, while potentially reducing the income of petroleum producers over the short term, also lengthens the availability of domestic resources. That’s a complex equation that deserves careful consideration because need for imported oil is a national security issue in the case of a trade war or a shooting war, neither of which seems unlikely right now.

And whether or not they’ll trade cars just to achieve it, consumers do appreciate fuel savings. Long after the purchase price has been negotiated, every trip to the gas station is a reminder of the true cost of owning a vehicle, especially in rural areas where residents travel long distances. At some fuel price point, demand for fuel-efficient cars will skyrocket and the market for gas-guzzlers will shrivel.

Not everyone wants to drive a Prius, although there are a lot on the road. But innovation is part of the American character, and over time, with some incentives, auto manufacturers will design vehicles that get better mileage while being comfortable, safe and fun to drive.

It is disappointing, but not surprising, that the Trump administration has taken such a short-sighted view. Drivers, however, can vote with their wallets – for cars that are good for drivers and the environment. The market still can accomplish what the EPA will not.