Climate Policies in the Hands of Trump: Be Careful of What You Wish For

August 10, 2018

Clean car rules in California, as unpopular as they are with oil companies and auto manufacturers are the clearest opportunity for federal preemption. It is consistent with Trump’s rollback promises and carries a low threat level with core supporters… –J. B. Stronberg/2017

It has been a busy couple of weeks for Trump and company in the habitable environment department. Spoiler Alert: Mothers and fathers lock up your children—at the least buy them gas masks and hazmat coveralls.

First, the Administration rolled out its proposed rollback of Obama era fuel efficiency and emission standards for cars and light trucks—otherwise known as Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFÉ) The proposed new rule would require no further mileage efficiencies for new cars and light trucks beyond 2020. While they were at it, Trump and company also proposed smacking down California’s ability to set a more strident emissions standard than the federal government.

Second, Comrade Donald’s EPA (Environmental Polit Agency?) has proposed a framework that will open the US market to new uses for asbestos. The proposed plan was published in the Federal Register at the beginning of June as a Significant New Use Rule (SNUR). Why “comrade” Donald will become apparent in a bit.

Under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the EPA is authorized to determine whether the use of a chemical is significantly new, i.e., employed in other than the usual manner.  In the case of asbestos, which contrary to the opinion of many has NOT been banned in the US, a new use would include being an ingredient in adhesive sealants or floor tiles.

Both the rollback of the CAFE standards and the new asbestos rule are illustrations of what has become of US climate policies in the Hands of Trump—albeit in very different ways. Of the two announcements, the administration’s proposed freeze of the mileage-per-gallon (mpg) at the 2020 levels will have the most negative consequences on both the nation’s environment and economy. The decision reflects the administration’s willingness to dismiss climate-science and Trump’s vow to undo the entirety of President Obama’s environmental legacy.

The asbestos case is not nearly of the same scope as CAFE in terms of either the environment or the economy. What it does show, however, is an administration incapable of even doing something potentially right because of the tone-deafness of its chief executive. To understand the meaning of this is to appreciate some of the history leading up to both the announcements.

CAFE—California dreamin’? 

​CAFE standards were introduced to the nation in 1975 as part of the Energy Policy and Conservation Act (EPCA). Motivating the new standards was the 1973 oil embargo. The environment received little more than a nod from lawmakers at the time.

Auto/light truck fuel efficiency standards stayed much the same as they were in the original legislation until the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) was signed into law by President Bush. Interest in vehicle fuel efficiency was aroused—again—as a matter of supply security.

President Obama saw in the regulations a vital opportunity to limit harmful GHG emissions and endeavored to make them a pillar of his carbon reduction agenda. In 2009, an historic agreement between the Federal Government, state regulators, and the auto industry established a national program to implement these first meaningful fuel efficiency improvements in over 30 years and the first-ever global warming pollution standards for light-duty vehicles.

The agreement came about because of the unfortunate position the auto industry found itself in during the Great Recession. There would never be a better time for Mr. Obama to get the auto industry to agree to greater efficiencies than when coupled to its rescue. He wanted the average fleet-wide fuel efficiency to reach 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. They needed a bailout.

CAFE standards, like other air emission regulations, are premised on the 1970 Clean Air Act (CAA). The Act generally preempts the states from adopting their own standards for mobile sources. The sole exception to this rule is California, which prevailed upon Congress to allow it to set stricter standards than those established by the federal government.

California’s argument was based upon the large number of autos in the state and the unique geographic circumstances responsible for critical air quality problems, e.g., the frequent trapping of polluted air in the Los Angeles basin. California had begun regulating tailpipe emissions on its own a decade before the federal government.

Although California is the only state allowed to set a different standard, other states are free to follow it. Fifteen states currently opt for the tougher rules, including Georgia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and the entire New York metro area…cover[ing] 135 million people, more than 40 percent of the U.S. population.

California’s right to ask for the waiver does not mean that the federal government is obligated to approve the request. Over the past 45 years, however, California has been granted the waiver every time it was requested—with one exception. The G.W. Bush (Bush 43) administration denied California’s waiver request in 2007.

​Bush 43 based its denial of the waiver on California’s proposal to add greenhouse gases (GHGs) to the list of regulated emissions—claiming it was inconsistent with section 202(a) of the CAA. Others suspected the denial a matter of politics over science.

California challenged the denial in court. The case was never decided, however, because it carried over into the Obama administration. As part of the auto bailout, Obama expanded national greenhouse standards covering auto emissions to include GHGs—mooting the California case.

Obama’s authority to set new auto standards that included emissions beyond ozone and particulates–then considered standard tailpipe emissions–came from a judicial decision. The case of Massachusetts v EPA was the lynchpin of the EPA’s 2009 endangerment finding and, in turn, the Clean Power Plan.

The decision in the Massachusetts case and the CAA are cornerstones of federal authority to regulate carbon and other greenhouse gases. Arguably it is one of the most critical judicial opinions in the history of environmental protection.

The decision in the case established that:

  • A state has standing to sue the federal government over the potential damage caused by global warming –on behalf of its citizens and its sovereign territorial interests.
  • EPA has authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate carbon and other GHGs.
  • The Clean Air Act’s language is purposely sweeping and capacious to keep the law current based upon on-going research into the harms and causes of climate change.
  • The EPA is required to give a reasoned explanation for a refusal to regulate known greenhouse gases (GHGs).

Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens summed up the case as follows:

Calling global warming “the most pressing environmental challenge of our time,” a group of States, local governments, and private organizations alleged…that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)…abdicated its responsibility under the Clean Air Act to regulate the emissions of four greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide. 

In the narrow 5-4 decision, SCOTUS ruled: if the Agency found the public’s health and welfare were endangered, it was obligated to regulate CO2 emissionsThe decision required EPA to determine if GHGs cause or contribute to air pollution and reasonably do harm to society.

EPA’s finding that GHGs endanger the health, welfare and security of the nation is the platform from which Obama launched the Clean Power Plan. Trump’s rollback of the standards is about more than CAFE; it is an assault on the CPP and indeed on the power of the federal government to regulate harmful emissions not explicitly mentioned in any enabling legislation.

By the numbers

There are excellent articles available that go into detail about the data Trump and company relied on in making their decision. (see end of article for links)  As my emphasis here is more on the politics than the science I will just briefly run through some of the highlights.

The transportation sector has surpassed electric generation as the major emitterof greenhouse gases.

Trump’s proposed rule would freeze emissions and efficiency standards at 2020 levels, or the equivalent of 43.7 miles per gallon (mpg) for passenger cars and 31.3 mpg for SUVs and other light trucks. Under the Obama administration, the standard would cut tailpipe emissions in half and deliver a new-car fleet in 2025 averaging an estimated 36 mpg in real-world driving which is the equivalent of 50 mpg in the lab. As originally proposed, the rule represented the biggest single step any nation has taken to fight climate change according to the Safe Climate Campaign’s director, Daniel Becker.

The Trump administration claims its decision will have no net negative impacts on the environment because oil consumption would rise by a relatively small amount, i.e., 500,000 barrels per day, which it readily admits is “counter-intuitive.” According to the Rhodium Group, freezing CAFE standards at 2020 levels would increase US oil consumption by between 126,000 and 283,000 barrels per day in 2025, depending on oil prices. In 2030 the impact grows to 221,000-644,000 moving higher from that point on. (see Figure 1).


​As oil consumption rises, emissions naturally increase as well. Although the increase in oil consumption has modest GHG emissions implications in 2025 relative to recent power sector developments, the magnitude grows over time. In 2025, US energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) will be 16 to 37 million metric tons (MMt) higher if CAFE standards are frozen at 2020 levels. By 2030 this grows to 28 to 83 MMt, again assuming there are no post-2025 standards in place. By 2035 the gap widens to 32 to 114 million metric tons depending on oil prices. (see Figure 2)


Other of the arguments Trumpsters have put forward as reasons behind the rollback involve safety, costs, and benefits. The Administration claims that 12,700 people will die if the standards aren’t frozen at the 2020 levels.

Greg Rasa writing on autoblog lists the three legs of the Administration’s safety argument as follows:

  • People will drive fewer miles if they’re getting fewer miles per gallon.
  • Vehicles won’t have to be made lighter. Heavier is safer.
  • Relieved of the costs of meeting the Obama-era standards, automakers will sell cheaper vehicles, and the public will more quickly transition into newer cars with the latest safety technologies.

In response to the three arguments are the following three brief answers:

  • Even if it were true that higher gas prices lead to fewer miles driven per driver, the Administration admits that annual demand will continue to grow by at least 500,000 bbl/day.
  • Although once true, today’s lighter vehicles are safer because of engineering, e.g., autonomous breaking, and the use of lighter but stronger materials, e.g., aluminum and high strength steel.
  • As fuel economy standards have steadily tightened over the past eight years, new car sales saw an unprecedented seven-year growth trend, followed by a slight decline to 17.1 million cars and light trucks sold in 2017. Despite the dip, it was the fourth-best sales year in U.S. history.

The Administration’s analysis is, to say the least—suspect. Its numbers on car costs and fuel savings seem generally to be cherry-picked and are being questioned by the authors of several of the studies that were used to concoct Trump and company’s defense of its decision. Antonio Bento, a public policy and economics professor at USC, one of the experts referenced by the Administration, has been quoted as saying “I don’t know how they are going to defend this analysis. I just don’t think it’s correct.”

Although not surprising for an Administration that continues to deny the existence and consequences of global warming, the Administration’s cost/benefit analysis regarding climate change largely under-values any environmental and health benefits that would accrue under their proposed rule or Obama’s. It appears to many that the Trumpeters responsible for the proposed rollback reached the desired conclusion first and then tried to backfill the hole they dug.

Cancelling California’s waiver is another matter and seems a strange thing to do for a Republican administration populated by states’ rights believers. Weren’t these the same people who sued the Obama administration for having usurped the right of a state to establish their own damn environmental rules?

First and foremost, revoking California’s waiver is a matter of Trumpian vengeance, although there is a practical argument to be made. The Donald has made no secret of his disdain for Governor Brown, the mayors of San Francisco and other sanctuary California cities—to say nothing of all the un-American Democratic members of the state’s congressional delegation like Nancy Pelosi.

Spleen aside, there is a practical reason for suspending California’s waiver. California and the other states and the District of Columbia that follow its more strident emission standard represent around 44 percent of the nation’s population and 40 percent of US truck and car sales. It doesn’t make economic sense for manufacturers to build cars to two different specifications. The California rule then becomes the de facto national standard. There has long been a push by the industry to have one national standard.

Auto manufacturers were naturally pleased when Trump was elected. In The Donald, they could trust that his administration would cut them some slack in terms of setting and meeting fuel efficiency standards. It turns out the industry is not overly thrilled with the proposed rollback rule.

  • Many of the companies are already invested in the technological, materials and engineering to meet and exceed the 2020 standard and are close to the 54.5 2025 standard.
  • The regulatory priority of many of the companies was not a lower efficiency standard but greater flexibility in how it could be achieved, e.g., front-loading the targets to match their current round of investments and then slowing the increases in the later year periods and maintaining electric vehicle tax credits. Trump’s proposed rule does nothing in this regard.
  • The auto industry is just like every other industry; it hates uncertainty. Even before the announcement was made, California and other of its followers were in court challenging what the Administration was and is doing. Justice in these matters never comes quickly. In the meantime, the manufacturers will be doing the limbo, either until something is decided or they simply take on the initiative themselves and build to a higher standard.
  • It’s impossible to separate Trump’s tariff and trade wars with the price and performance of automobiles and light trucks. The cost of vehicles is already going up because of steel and aluminum tariffs. Trump’s threatened 25 plus percent tariffs not only exacerbates the current situation, but it can prompt China and the EU to add fuel efficiency and emission requirements to their import regulations—requirements higher than Trump’s proposed 2020—forcing US auto manufacturers to build to a standard set by China or France.
  • Tariffs are not the only Trumpian measures that work against the US auto industry. The Administration partially relies on higher oil prices to control the number of miles driven in less efficient vehicles.

However, Trump keeps putting pressure on foreign suppliers to keep prices low, even in the face of political problems in Venezuela and Iran. The Administration’s opening of the Arctic and other ocean areas, as well as federal lands, to oil exploration and extraction, also promises to keep prices low in response to greater supplies.

Acting EPA Administrator Wheeler appears hopeful that on-going negotiations between the Administration, the auto industry, California and other states will settle things down. There are sound economic arguments to be made for a singular agreed to standard(s)—not the least of these being removal of at least some of the market uncertainty.

Given the manic and petulant nature of Trump, a lack of communication within the Administration to the point where one hand seems not to know the whereabouts of the other, and the political enmity and mistrust that characterizes the relationship between the White House and “Green” Executive Mansions in many of the states and cities that follow California’s lead Wheeler’s optimism may not be warranted.

​As I had mentioned at the beginning of this article, the Administration put a notice in the Federal Register having to do with asbestos. The notice is mischaracterized by many in the press and environmental community. It is NOT a case of the Trump administration opening the door to the use of asbestos after its having been outlawed.

The fact is that asbestos has never been entirely banned in the US.  In 1989, the EPA tried to ban asbestos outright, under a 1976 law called the Toxic Substances Control Act. The phased prohibition was overturned by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1991, and the agency succeeded in halting only six then-obsolete uses of asbestos, including corrugated paper and flooring felt.

The situation today is as it was during the Obama administration. Should asbestos be totally banned? Probably, but that cannot be done administratively, it requires action by Congress.

In the meantime, federal regulations require EPA to publish a Significant New Use Rule (SNUR) to put companies on notice that if they want to use a chemical substance—in this case, asbestos—in any of its non-banned applications, e.g., in floor tiles, it must apply to EPA 90 days in advance. Without the rule, there would be no way to know when the companies were importing or incorporating asbestos into their products. The notice is protection, not an invitation.

So why all the hub-bub? Once again, I refer you to President Donald J. Trump. Dear Donald has written about asbestos—the dangers of which he puts under the heading of HOAX along with climate change.

In his book The Art of the Comeback Trump blames the mob—yes, that mob—for regulations requiring asbestos to be ripped out of buildings and disposed of as a hazardous material. Why the mob? Because, the mob, as anyone from Jersey or New York can tell, launders money through trash collection and disposal businesses. Trump goes on to blame politicians for colluding with the gangster class.

Wait, the story doesn’t end there. Where would Trump be without a connection to the Russians? Donald’s faith in asbestos has been recognized by Urablest, a Russian mining company that just happens to be one of the world’s largest producers and sellers of asbestos.

Given Trump’s popularity in Russia Urablest thought it would be a good marketing ploy to put Comrade Donald’s face on their asbestos pallet wrappings along with the phrase “Approved by the 45th president of the United States.

Would environmental protection not be a matter of life and death Trump’s face on asbestos wrappers would be a helluva’ hoot. However, as I’ve told readers before, climate change is some serious shit.

If climate change, environmental protection, trade policies, and the competent administration of the federal government were not already complicated enough problems in themselves, now is added the petulant personality of President Trump. Although there would still be arguments between the parties negotiating the CAFE standards, the conflicts would undoubtedly be narrower and possibly more amenable to a negotiated solution, if only Trump would actually listen.

Admittedly a lot of the reporting about the SNUR in the asbestos case is inaccurate. Much of the problem, however, is the ridiculousness of Trump’s assertions about the mob and his continually cozying up to Putin. Beyond asbestos, Trump has now spoken of environmental regulation as being responsible for the massive forest fires in California and for short-changing the water needs of firefighters. Can things be any more absurd?

If Trump had an ounce of credibility when it comes to matters like global warming and the known carcinogenic effects of asbestos, maybe he could get more credit for what he might do right—whether by design or accident.

Some additional links to stories on CAFE rollback


Lead image: Screenshot of Uralabest Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/Uralasbest/photos/pcb.531137150617873/531137033951218/?type=3&theater

Joel Stronberg

Joel B. Stronberg, Esq., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years of experience, based in Washington, DC. He writes about energy and politics in his blog Civil Notion (www.civilnotion.com) and has recently published the book Earth v. TrumpThe Climate Defenders' Guide to Washington Politics based on his commentaries. He has worked extensively in the clean energy fields for public and private sector clients at all levels of government and in Latin America. His specialties include: resiliency; distributed generation and storage; utility regulation; financing mechanisms; sustainable agriculture; and human behavior. Stronberg is a frequent presenter at conferences and workshops.

Tags: American politics