Trump Clean-Car Rollback Could Mean Dirtier Air for New Jersey

Tom Johnson | August 3, 2018 | Energy & Environment
Administration’s move to freeze tougher fuel-efficiency standards may make it much harder for state to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, diminish air pollution

tailpipe emissions smog
The Trump administration yesterday moved to roll back aggressive federal clean-car standards, a decision that likely will increase air pollution in New Jersey and undermine its efforts to curb emissions contributing to climate change, according to critics.

The decision, announced jointly by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, had been expected for weeks by clean-air advocates, but turned out be worse than anticipated, according to environmentalists. Proponents said it would make cars safer and save consumers money.

The proposal aims to freeze tougher fuel-efficiency standards intended to reduce pollution from cars while also revoking the right of California to establish more stringent tailpipe-emission standards than other states, a step designed to limit greenhouse-gas emissions.

Relaxing restrictions on greenhouse gases

The latter move is especially significant for New Jersey, which is one of 12 other states that have adopted California’s tougher emission standards, which include mandates to transition to electric vehicles. Transportation accounts for roughly 46 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions in New Jersey, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The rollback already is being challenged in court by environmental groups, sure to be joined by California and other states. Auto manufacturers also have a big stake in this fight, as they’re worried about having to comply with different standards in multiple states. In any case, litigation could lead to years of legal uncertainty.

In New Jersey, advocates denounced the freezing of the standards and the move to abolish the California waiver, saying it will increase air pollution, making it harder for the state to clean up its air. New Jersey has never achieved the federal health-quality standard for ground-level ozone, a pollutant that blankets parts of the state every summer.

State DEP opposes GOP action

The state Department of Environmental Protection also opposes the administration’s action, according to Larry Hajna, a spokesman. “Weakening the standards means that consumers will pay more at the pump,’’ he said.

“For the average car owner, it means they will pay more for gas and your kids will have more asthma attacks,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “This is like a Pearl Harbor to our lungs.’’

Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler described the proposal as fulfilling the president’s promise to fix the current fuel-economy and greenhouse-gas emissions standards. “Our proposal aims to strike the right regulatory balance based on the most recent information and create a 50-state solution that will enable Americans to drive newer, safe vehicles that pollute less.’’

The fuel-economy standards, enacted in 2012 by the Obama administration with the support of auto manufacturers, were designed to double new vehicles’ fuel economy and cut their carbon pollution in half by 2025.

In announcing the rollback, the Trump administration said the current regulations pushed up the price of new vehicles to an average of $35,000 or more — out of reach for many families. If those standards were kept in place, it would cost an additional $500 billion to the economy over the next 50 years, according to the administration.

Fill it up, 66 more times

That view was disputed by clean-car advocates. By freezing fuel-economy standards, the administration would cause the owner of an average model year 2025 vehicle to fill the gas tank 66 more times and drive up the cost of ownership by $1,620 over the life of the vehicle, according to Therese Langer of the American Council for an Energy-Efficiency Future.

“Today’s decision goes against the conclusion from experts that stringent clean-car standards are in the best interests of all Americans, protecting them from unnecessarily high fuel costs, respiratory and other health problems caused by pollution, and climate change,’’ said Emily Lewis, a policy analyst at the Acadia Center, a research and advocacy group pushing clean energy.

For New Jersey, the decision to possibly end a waiver that allows California to set tougher emission standards for cars could jeopardize aggressive goals to curb greenhouse-gas emissions. The so-called Zero Emission Vehicle program mandated states that follow the plan convert big portions of their car fleets to electric vehicles.

“The clean-car standard is the best silver bullet we have to reduce carbon emissions right now,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “President Trump is trying to carjack our clean-car standards.’’

But Pam Frank, CEO and president of ChargEVC, a coalition promoting electric vehicles, called the Trump proposal more of a distraction — given the new products now and coming out from auto manufacturers.

“The horse has already left the barn,’’ Frank said. “This could be a clarion call to states to make these markets happen, which they already are.’’