The Trump administration wouldn’t let a little thing like a pandemic get in the way of its mission of rolling back Obama-era policies. As the White House supports a lawsuit from Texas that would wipe out the Affordable Care Act, a New York Times report stated that the administration will announce Tuesday that it will severely reduce emissions standards for commercial vehicles. The new rule, to be implemented this spring, would negate a 2012 policy requiring automakers’ fleets to average around 54 miles per gallon by 2025, bringing that down to 40 mpg. Written by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation, the change would result in almost a billion more tons of carbon dioxide pumped out by the vehicles affected by the rule and 80 billion more gallons of gasoline consumed than under the Obama-era standards.
Despite consistent pushback from automakers like Ford, BMW, Honda, and Volkswagen on eased emissions standards, the president is reportedly expected to sell the rule change as a boon to an economy gutted by the coronavirus. The move, however, has been in the works for far longer than COVID-19 has existed on the planet. And the administration’s own analyses of the deregulation warned that it may hurt consumers by requiring car owners to fill up more often. (After all, the national average of $2 per gallon won’t last forever.) The draft, delivered to the White House in January, stated that consumers would pay about $1,000 less for new cars and trucks but would pay an additional $1,400 over the affected vehicles’ lifetimes, resulting in an aggregate cost to the economy of somewhere between $13 billion and $22 billion.
But far more concerning than the economic cost of the rule change is its short-term environmental effects: Critics anticipate that the move will kill several hundred Americans annually due to decreases in air quality caused by the extra billions of gallons of spent gasoline. “They’re pursuing a policy that’s going to hurt public health and kill people,” Chet France, a former EPA official who oversaw emissions and mileage standards, told CNBC. “This is the first time that an administration has pursued a policy that will net negative benefit for society and reduce fuel savings.”
The rollback is likely to be mired in the courts, as at least 20 states are expected to sue the Trump administration over the rule changes. (The lawsuits will join the major one filed by California in September hoping to overrule the DOT’s and EPA’s revocation of the state’s ability to set higher tailpipe emissions standards.) But during the chaos of a historic economic crisis and the tragedy of a pandemic, the White House also announced it would stop pursuing polluters — an action without an end date that snuck by without much public scrutiny. On Thursday, the EPA stated the agency would abandon its environmental-protection duties and would “not expect to seek penalties for violations of routine compliance monitoring, integrity testing, sampling, laboratory analysis, training, and reporting or certification obligations in situations where the EPA agrees that COVID-19 was the cause of the noncompliance.”
The rule, which is in place indefinitely, means that major emitters will be able to individually assess whether conditions caused by the coronavirus will impact their ability to follow environmental laws. “This EPA statement is essentially a nationwide waiver of environmental rules for the indefinite future,” Cynthia Giles, the head of the EPA’s Office of Enforcement under Obama, told The Hill. “It tells companies across the country that they will not face enforcement even if they emit unlawful air and water pollution in violation of environmental laws, so long as they claim that those failures are in some way ‘caused’ by the virus pandemic. And it allows them an out on monitoring too, so we may never know how bad the violating pollution was.”
Despite the temporary decrease in emissions caused by coronavirus shutdowns in most of the world’s major economies, the consequences of a hotter world continue to accrue. Last week, a study published in Current Biology found that major populations of marine species have been relocating to the poles, resulting in disarray throughout oceanic food chains and uncertainty for local fisheries. Another study from last week published in Global Change Biology found that some of those animals will be migrating toward a much hotter southern pole: In January, regions of Antarctica experienced temperatures that were 6.9 degrees Celsius warmer than the historic average. Yet another study from last week found that one glacier in East Antarctica had retreated almost three miles in just 22 years.