In one of its most damaging attacks on science-based climate policy to date, President Donald Trump's administration has announced a rollback of federal vehicle emissions rules enacted by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2012 — and activists and government officials in Colorado are panning the move, which, combined with other actions by the Trump administration, could hamper their own efforts to fight climate change at the state level.
The revised rule announced by the EPA today, March 31, significantly weakens a requirement that U.S. automakers gradually improve their vehicles' fuel efficiency, mandating increases of just 1.5 percent per year through 2026, down from the 5 percent annual improvement required under the original rules. Analysts project that the change will result in the emission of an additional 1.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide, a climate-warming greenhouse gas, by the year 2040.
"Our final rule puts in place a sensible national program that strikes the right regulatory balance that protects our environment, and sets reasonable targets for the auto industry," EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler — a former lobbyist for the coal industry who has repeatedly denied the scientific consensus on climate change — said in a release announcing the reversal.
The Trump administration's decision deals a major blow to efforts to reduce carbon pollution from the transportation sector, which has overtaken electricity generation as the largest source of emissions in both Colorado and the country at large. With scientists urging steep reductions of at least 45 percent in economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, time is running out to address transportation-sector emissions by cutting down car travel, making gas-powered vehicles more fuel-efficient and eventually transitioning to zero-emission electric models.
Though the EPA's move was widely expected, its timing drew harsh criticism from a wide range of environmental activists and Democratic policy makers, particularly in Colorado, where cleaning up the transportation sector has been an early focus of Governor Jared Polis's administration. In a joint release, the directors of the Colorado Energy Office, the Department of Transportation and the Department of Public Health and Environment slammed the administration for targeting clean-air regulations during the spiraling public-health and economic crisis caused by the spread of COVID-19.
"It is bitterly ironic that, in the midst of a pandemic that is compromising respiratory health across the globe, this administration is choosing to focus its energies on rolling back air pollution regulations and trying to curtail states’ rights to protect the air we all breathe," said Colorado Energy Office director Will Toor. The Trump administration's focus, he added, should be on finding "a way to get auto manufacturers and the auto supply chain through the tumultuous economic time that we are in, and on a long-term pathway toward zero-emissions transportation as the economy rebounds."
Local environmental groups echoed those criticisms, pointing to an extensive body of research linking air pollution from gas-powered cars to respiratory issues, heart disease and other health problems, as well as a Consumer Reports analysis that found the weaker efficiency standards could saddle American drivers with an estimated $300 billion in added fuel costs.
"Shame on the Trump administration for exploiting the cover of a pandemic to roll back the clean car standards, which are crucial public-health safeguards," said Emily Gedeon, chapter director for the Colorado Sierra Club. "As families face a growing health and economic crisis, Donald Trump and Andrew Wheeler’s action endangers communities, exacerbates the climate emergency, and takes money out of people’s wallets."
In Colorado and other states, air-quality regulators have gone even further than the federal standards, passing their own fuel-efficiency mandates and requiring automakers to sell a certain number of zero-emission vehicles as a percentage of their overall sales within the state. But the Trump administration is attempting to revoke states' authority to make their own emissions rules, meaning that cars across the country would be subject to the weaker federal standards announced March 31.
According to Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, who joined other states in suing to block that change last year, the state will challenge the federal government over the new emissions rules, too.
"The EPA’s misguided rollback is at odds with the agency’s own science and data, which show that the weaker fuel-economy standards will increase air pollution, cost consumers more at the pump, and fail to make the nation’s roads safer," Weiser said.
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