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Vehicle Emissions

Last Updated:2020-Apr-28
Principal Writer:Barry Shatzman

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Environment: Policy

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Transport is the top polluter in US

Motor vehicles are the largest source of pollution in the United States.

Since the 1970 Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has regulated the amount of pollutants that vehicles may emit.

One way it does this is by setting fuel economy standards.

In 2012, the Obama administration mandated that new cars average more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025.

In 2018, the Trump administration proposed drastically reducing that efficiency target.

In 2020, the Trump administration implemented its new rule, relaxing that requirement to 40 miles per gallon.

In 2021, the Biden administration is attempting to reverse the Trump administration policies and reinstate stricter standards.

Actual fuel economy could be even lower

Emissions standards are based on a manufacturer's entire fleet. If that fleet includes electric vehicles (which have no emissions), gasoline-powered cars the company produces could be even less fuel-efficient and still be in compliance overall.

Higher standards mean less pollution

Using less gasoline means less carbon dioxide (C02) emitted into the air. Transportation makes up about a third of America's CO2 emissions.

Since 1975, fuel economy standards have saved 1.5 trillion gallons of gasoline - enough to power all the cars and light trucks in the U.S. for a decade.

Higher standards save most Americans money

One of the arguments made for reduced emissions standards is that it makes new cars more affordable for low-income people.

This has not been shown to be the case, as the cost of lower-model cars has remained relatively constant in spite of manufacturers doubling fuel economy since standards were introduced in 1975.

The cost to manufacturers to implement fuel savings has been less than $250 per car - less than a percent of the average new car price. Most of that has been absorbed by the manufacturers.

Meanwhile, increased fuel standards have saved Americans $4 trillion in fuel costs since 1975. Low- and middle-class households have benefitted the most - saving up to 2 percent of their annual income.

The cost of buying more gasoline is the equivalent of a fuel tax of up to 50 cents per gallon, according to a study by Energy Innovation.

Increased costs affect more than just your car

The cost for services such as taxis and food delivery also would increase.

Half a million jobs could be lost if American manufacturers become less competitive with foreign ones due to lower emission standards, according to a Forbes analysis. A Trump administration analysis estimates a loss of 60,000 jobs.

"The only winners are the oil companies, who stand to sell more gasoline at the expense of American consumers, manufacturers, and the environment," the Energy Innovation report concludes.

California enforces stricter standards

California presents a unique situation when it comes to smog due to its geography - such as Los Angeles' basin shape - and the number of cars on its freeways. So by the time the EPA began regulating emissions in 1970, California already had been doing so for years - and with tougher standards.

Because those standards were in place when the Clean Air Act was enacted, a waiver was written into the law allowing California to maintain its stricter standards.

The law allows for very limited circumstances under which the EPA can deny a waiver requested by California.

In 1990, a revision to the Clean Air Act allowed other states to adopt California's standards. Several states have done so, accounting for a third of the U.S. automobile market.

In 2019, the Trump administration announced it would attempt to revoke California's waiver. Several lawsuits have been filed claiming that the administration lacked the authority to do so.

In 2021, the Biden administration is proposing to return that authority to California (this would render the lawsuits moot).

Manufacturers worried about low standards as well as high

In spite of the initial demand for relaxed standards coming from auto manufacturers themselves, several now are saying they actually want higher standards.

They suggested a middle ground between the 54 miles per gallon standard imposed by the Obama administration and the lax standards proposed by the Trump administration.

Auto industry executives say that their biggest worry is uncertainty. A standard too low would result in lawsuits that could take years to resolve - leaving auto makers unsure of not only how to build their cars, but what mix of models to build to achieve overall fleet requirements.

Deal with Calfiornia

California also has filed lawsuits against the administration for revoking its waiver to set its own stricter standards. Those lawsuits also could take years to resolve. If California prevails, extreme differences in standards could force automakers to deal with two completely different markets.

In 2019 four automakers (Ford, Honda, BMW, and Volkswagen) reached an agreement with California to produce cars with higher fuel economy than the Trump administration would require.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) responded by opening an antitrust inquiry against the companies. They later dropped the investigation.

Sources of our information

Click here to view the analysis by Energy Innovation.

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