Unclean at Any Speed: Pruitt’s Attack on Obama Auto Pollution Rule

Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and second only to President Trump in the climate denial game, proposed on Monday revising — which definitely means relaxing and probably means crippling — the ambitious, groundbreaking greenhouse gas and fuel-economy standards approved during the Obama administration.

Though the devil will lie in the final details, the reversal puts Mr. Pruitt’s E.P.A. on a collision course with California, which can set its own emissions standards, thereby creating two car markets with different emissions standards. It would deprive consumers of billions of dollars in savings at the gas pump. It would do nothing to reduce imports of foreign crude oil. It would slow the steady technological advance toward cleaner cars.

And — no surprise here — it would continue Mr. Trump’s yearlong demolition of every important policy Barack Obama put in place to fight global warming. The Clean Power Plan to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants? Consigned to the dustbin. America’s participation in the historic Paris agreement on global warming? Withdrawn. John Kerry’s decision when he was secretary of state to block the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada? Revoked. And now on the chopping block, the 2012 auto efficiency rule aimed at curbing carbon emissions in the transportation sector, the country’s biggest source of planet-warming gases.

But here’s something interesting. The only conceivable beneficiaries of Mr. Pruitt’s scheme — the automakers, whose trade groups and lobbyists have been pressuring the White House for more lenient rules — may not be all that crazy about the plan, either. Bill Ford, the chairman of Ford Motor Company, and Jim Hackett, the company’s chief executive, wrote in a blog post last week that while they would like more “flexibility” on meeting the rule, “we support increasing clean car standards through 2025 and are not asking for a rollback.”

In short, adjustments, yes, wholesale revisions, no. There are several reasons for this caution. One has to do with preserving the industry’s reputation and satisfying what amounts to its historical obligation. The Obama administration rules were plenty tough, calling for a doubling in fuel economy for new cars and light trucks, to more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025, equivalent to a real-world average of 36 m.p.g. But the automakers signed on, not least because multibillion-dollar bailouts by the Bush and Obama administrations kept them afloat, for which they still owe the American taxpayer a very big thank-you. Backsliding now on public health and the environment would not do the automakers a lot of good.

A second reason is California. Because of its uniquely severe smog problems, and because its clean air rules predate federal rules, California has been allowed under the Clean Air Act to set its own, and traditionally tougher, air pollution standards, as long as it is granted a waiver by the federal government to do so. This in effect has confronted the automobile industry with the need to manufacture two versions of its cars — one for California and the dozen states that have adopted California’s standards, and another for the rest of the country.

Part of the genius of the Obama program was that it harmonized California’s rules and the federal rules. But if the Trump administration tries to undermine this deal, California has said that it will once again go its own way, fracturing the American car and light truck market. Automakers don’t need that headache and expense.

There’s always a chance that a determined Mr. Pruitt, who deeply resents California’s aggressiveness on this and other clean air issues, could try to revoke California’s waiver and force the state to toe the federal line — something he signaled in a statement on Monday. That would inspire a legal donnybrook that Mr. Pruitt has no guarantee of winning and would make his efforts look even more feckless and destructive. California is “prepared to take any and all legal action” to protect its air emissions standards, Xavier Becerra, the state’s attorney general, said last week.

Finally, there is scant evidence that the automakers want to slow the steady march toward cleaner cars. Mary Barra, General Motors’ chief executive, has expressed support for the current nationwide standards, which can only improve Detroit’s competitiveness in an increasingly climate-conscious global market. Though sales of electric vehicles represent barely 1 percent of global car sales, China has a new zero-emission-vehicle mandate, which requires that 12 percent of new cars have no tailpipe emissions. France and Britain have pledged to end the sale of diesel and gas cars by 2040.

Mr. Pruitt appears to have little interest in that larger picture and has made it his mission to serve the interests of fossil fuel companies. Industry officials have been kind to him in turn. Last week, the agency confirmedthat he rented a room from the wife of an energy lobbyist whose firm had business before the E.P.A. Under the sweetheart deal, Mr. Pruitt paid just $50 a night to rent a room in a Capitol Hill condominium in the first half of last year, well below the going rate.

What Mr. Trump and Mr. Pruitt could both use is a history lesson. History shows that well-tailored regulation drives innovation and, far from killing jobs, as Mr. Trump contends, creates them. This is true in fields like energy, where clean air mandates led to big investments in wind and solar power. And it’s true also of the automobile industry, where engineers commonly found technological answers to regulatory mandates even as industry lobbyists warned of certain bankruptcy. Detroit and foreign manufacturers in the American market have done well under the Obama rules. Those targets should remain in place and, if anything, be strengthened in the years ahead.

Courtesy: The New York Times