Gas War: States Sue Trump Administration Over Fuel Rollback

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

Following America’s fueling feud has shown your author that it’s less about finding a reasonable compromise that works for consumers, the automotive industry, and environmental activists, and more about perpetuating ideological wars that now seem to surround every topic filtered through the news media.

Encouraged by industry leaders just days after taking office, President Donald Trump made the fuel economy rollback one of his first initiatives. It wasn’t until March that the softened final draft emerged, however, and it won’t be enough to conclude the almost four-year battle. A collection of 23 states filed suit against the Trump administration’s easing of emissions standards on Wednesday. They argue that the rollback is illegal and based on bunk information.

While we’ve also been suspect of some of the metrics used to make the rollback look more desirable, fueling standards haven’t adhered to reality in some time. The Obama-era standards that would have seen Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) rise to 54 mpg by 2025 were deemed unsustainable by that administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), but were put into play anyway.

The Trump administration has harped upon this throughout, repeatedly stating that automakers would have extreme difficulty meeting their targets. U.S. customers also have a preference for larger automobiles, placing some efficiency mandates at odds with market realities. Initially, the current administration claimed a rollback would lower the price of new cars dramatically, helping spur the economy. It then started baking-in safety and job claims as ammunition against opponents that we found questionable.

Meanwhile, automakers turned tail and ran from the issue or sided with environmentalists. No corporation in today’s world (with the possible exception of the Dodge division) would openly admit to having an interest in something that might negatively impact the environment, so we faced a constant stream of press releases about manufacturers’ commitment to Mother Earth and a gaggle siding with California in its voluntary fueling agreement.

That left us with a federal government that was largely fixated on the economy and numerous state governments that saw environmental regulation as the only thing that mattered. The industry attempted to play both sides, understanding that there was little to be gained by taking too strong of a stance and keenly aware that global emission rules may make any changes in the United States somewhat pointless. But Trump is a deregulation kind of guy and the fight has to reach its conclusion, lest three years of effort be wasted.

We knew lawsuits were coming, with some already in progress. This year, Senator Tom Carper (D-DE) repeatedly petitioned the EPA’s Inspector General to look into the metrics used to rationalized the rollback. California regulators have likewise said they would use every tool at their disposal to keep the state from having to adhere to updated national standards since day one of the gas war. In the interim, California rallied like-minded states, and they are the ones that are now suing the Trump administration.

According to The Wall Street Journal, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra believes one of the core tenants of the rollback isn’t all it’s cracked up to be — suggesting it will ultimately hurt employment rates by discouraging future green-tech jobs and will be a black eye for air quality. “It will increase costs to consumers and allow the emission of dangerous pollutants that directly threaten the health of our families,” he said.

While a state that currently has overwhelming problems with substance abuse, homelessness, and human feces crowding urban sidewalks likely has bigger public health concerns than a fuel rollback that still compromised enough to raise annual auto efficiencies by 1.5 percent per year, Becerra and company aren’t actually leading with the environmental stuff in the lawsuit.

From WSJ:

The states argue in their suit that the Trump administration relied on an error-prone analysis that included omissions to justify the rule change, particularly in asserting that the changes would save consumers money over time, according to some of the attorneys general involved. The suit also argues that the rule violates federal requirements to reduce air pollution and increase vehicle efficiency, they said.

The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, the trade group representing the industry in Washington, hasn’t yet seen the lawsuit but will review it, a spokesman said.

Honestly, we don’t know how either side can confidently claim the ability to predict future vehicle pricing. While higher standards could force additional electrification that would probably increase MSRPs, automakers could seek to meet efficiency targets through the sale of lightweight cars using small, cheap internal combustion motors. Some claim that EVs will help offset their higher purchase price via fuel savings, but this first requires one puts a lot of miles beneath their wheels.

That doesn’t assure the current administration a victory. Despite being prone to deregulation, it has lost a disproportionate number of regulatory cases compared to previous administrations. This could be the result of Trump and company being extra eager to undo restrictive rules and taking more action overall, though some claim irrational anger toward the president has influenced judges’ decisions. Of course, there is also evidence to suggest federal regulators haven’t always done their due diligence before taking action.

Who should you trust when it comes to the fuel rollback? Probably no one.

Both sides seem to have decided, even from before the outset, that the end justifies the means. While the Trump administration has been more willing to compromise, we think the EPA went overboard in trying to justify the rollback. Meanwhile, states opposing it have shown themselves unwilling to have it any way but theirs and will weep for the environment while ignoring the economy and consumer choice. Everyone’s playing dirty, cherry-picking data in service of their preferred cause.

At least you get to make up your own mind on this one.

[Image: Marc Bruxelle/Shutterstock]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • Jeff S Jeff S on May 30, 2020

    @Lou_BC--True but at least the HDs don't have turbo charged 6s and trucks don't have cvts but all that could change if CAFE standards get even more stringent. The next generation Tundra will have a turbo 6. In the next few years you might see all the manufacturers replace V8s with turbo 6s in their half ton pickups and eventually you will see more turbo 3s and 4s replace V6s in midsize pickups along with more aluminum, alloy, and plastic body parts to lighten the weight. Trucks have become more of a target for regulators because more buyers are replacing their traditional sedans with crew cab pickups. As trucks become more popular they will become more regulated and will be required to meet more stringent CAFE standards.

    • Lou_BC Lou_BC on May 30, 2020

      I have zero problems with owning a V6 turbo truck. With that being said, a F350 Tremor with 7.3 is what I'd want to buy next. That is because it's 500 lbs.lighter than the diesel and I have zero interest in towing a big trailer.

  • Jeff S Jeff S on May 31, 2020

    Well then maybe you would like an F350 with a turbo 6 and an F150 with a turbo 4. My point is not so much against the turbo 6 in the F150 as it is the gaming of regulations in order to comply by using smaller engines in vehicles not meant to have them which reduces the reliability and life of the vehicles. I am not so much a fan of big displacement engines as I am concerned about the longevity and reliability of a vehicle. Manufacturers can make the vehicles lighter but there is a limit to what manufacturers can do with ICE to squeeze out more efficiency. As for your F350 7.3 that you want that will eventually be replaced with a smaller turbo engine as well. My point is that trucks will be more regulated especially when more buyers are choosing trucks over cars.

  • Probert A few mega packs would probably have served as decent backup.
  • Lou_BC Lead sleds. Now-a-days GM would just use Bondo.
  • Jrhurren This is a great series. Thanks Corey
  • Tane94 Not as stylish as the Soul which it is replacing but a practical shape and bonus points for EV only.
  • Ronin What is the magical white swan event in the foreseeable future that will suddenly reverse the trend?Success tends to follow success, and likewise failure. The perception, other than among true believers, is that e-cars are a lost cause. Neither government fiat, nor government bribery, nor even the promise of superior virtue among one's peers have been enough to push past the early adapter curve. Either the bust-out is right now for e-cars, or it doesn't happen. Marketing 101.Even subtle language-manipulation, such as deeming those possessing common sense as suffering from some sort of vague anxiety (eg, "range anxiety") has not been enough to induce people to care.Twenty years from now funny AI-generated comedians will make fun of the '20s, and their obsession with theose silly half-forgotten EVs. They will point out that, yes, EVs actually ran on electricity generated by such organic fuels as coal and natural gas after all, and then they will perform synthesized laughter at us.