Gas War: Did the Biden Administration Relax or Tighten U.S. Vehicle Emissions?

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

If you pursued the news over the weekend, you undoubtedly saw articles claiming that the Biden administration both relaxed and tightened U.S. vehicle emissions standards. While often framed as complex, the reality is that the White House has repeatedly stressed its desire to push Americans toward electric vehicles and has instituted regulatory goals to that aim. However, it has softened on earlier proposals that would have set the standards even higher.

Let’s dig into what happened and the possible implications of the updated standards.


The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced stricter emissions for heavy work vehicles in March, leaving the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to focus on smaller passenger vehicles and trucks. The new rules were announced on Friday and stipulate that average fuel economy for passenger cars should increase by 2 percent per year for the 2027-2031 model years. Light trucks are supposed to see the same increase between MY 2029 and 2031. The NHTSA estimates that this should result in approximately 50.4 miles per gallon by the 2031 model year.


Considering the Biden administration was originally targeting averages of 55 miles per gallon by 2026 and 58 by 2032, with the NHTSA wanting a 4 percent annual increase on light trucks, this does indeed represent a reduction of the original goals. But those targets had received quite a bit of pushback from the industry. Despite many automakers spending the last few years vowing to adhere to widespread electrification, most have had trouble turning EVs into a profitable business model. At a minimum, they want the government to continue subsidizing the pivot to all-electric vehicles as they simultaneously ask for more leeway in the run up to the assumed EV utopia.


This will undoubtedly remain the case, too, even as some car brands that previously claimed to be wholly committed toward electrification shift back toward developing combustion engines.


The NHTSA estimates the current regulations will reduce U.S. fuel consumption by 70 billion gallons of gasoline through 2050. But for the average driver, that amounts to roughly $600 fewer dollars in fuel costs over the entire lifespan of a vehicle. That’s modest, but not inconsequential.

“Not only will these new standards save Americans money at the pump every time they fill up, they will also decrease harmful pollution and make America less reliant on foreign oil,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg claimed in a statement.


Environmental groups have been semi-supportive of the change. Some have stated that it will improve air quality, while others bemoaned that higher metrics were not put in place.


“NHTSA’s new fuel economy standards will improve gas mileage, ease the burden of high gas prices at the pump for American families, and slash our nation’s oil consumption,” Katherine García, the director of the Sierra Club’s Clean Transportation for All Campaign, stated. “With these new standards, auto manufacturers will have to deliver cleaner, more efficient vehicles.”


While we could argue all day about whether or not EVs are actually cleaner or more ethical, automakers will undoubtedly have to produce more in order to comply with emissions. They’ll also be required to improve the fuel efficiency of their gasoline vehicles. While that sounds like a boon to drivers, the industry scrambling to field new powertrains in recent years has arguably resulted in a decline in overall reliability. Companies get pretty good at building the same motors once they’ve done it for a few years.


By contrast, it takes a while to iron out the lumps in newer powertrains and their designs often embrace a higher level of complexity (to adhere to emissions) that result in higher maintenance costs. All this new development likewise requires colossal financial investments on the part of the relevant companies, driving up new vehicle prices. EVs were supposed to avoid all of this by being mechanically simple. But their pricing has remained elevated due to a surplus of luxury models and several years of exceptionally high development costs.


Safety advocates have thrown in their two cents, with some suggesting that the new emission targets would reduce traffic fatalities on the grounds of there being fewer heavy SUVs and pickups. While there are many reasons why vehicular fatalities have risen in recent years, one of the biggest is the fact that new models are absolutely massive compared to older vehicles.


However, that very issue was created in large part by government standards and the footprint rule that formed a loophole where automakers could dodge emissions by building increasingly larger vehicles. This also contributed toward stagnating practical U.S. fuel-economy averages while allowing regulators to pretend they had made a meaningful difference. Your author covered this extensively in 2023, after a barrage of questions about why today’s pickups are so comically huge and small passenger cars no longer exist in meaningful quantities.


Pivoting the entire nation toward EVs and hybrids likewise will not reduce their size by itself. In fact, those models tend to weigh significantly more than their combustion counterparts — doing pedestrians and occupants of smaller vehicles no favors unless the laws of physics have magically changed.


The last piece of this puzzle appears to be political. With Americans seeming less interested in all-electric vehicles these days, it makes sense for the Biden administration to soften its targets a tad.


Despite UAW leadership supporting the White House, automotive unions the world over have grown resentful of all-electric vehicles due to the fact that they typically require fewer domestic employees to assemble. American workers are concerned that the government has focused its attention on widespread electrification at the expense of market realities, potentially leaving them without a job in the coming years.


With Biden running for reelection this year, and Republican candidate Donald Trump mocking the current administration's backing of EVs and increasingly stringent emission rules, there’s a chance that the White House will lose union voter support in November. President Trump rolled back emissions targets while in office only to see them reinstated and expanded by executive order after Biden became president. The former has since promised to deregulate the market, should he win the 2024 election, and walk back emissions in the hopes that automakers build more traditional vehicles Americans enjoy at a price they can afford.


But that’s easier said than done and the automotive lobby appears sufficiently pleased with the Biden administration’s current plan and undoubtedly had some input. Large swaths of the industry have spent countless billions pivoting toward EVs already and remain eager to receive any government incentives tied to electrification regardless of what happens next. CEO of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation John Bozzella, head of the largest automotive lobbying group in the world, has come out to praise the new regulations.


Despite criticisms that the Biden administration is delivering less than promised in terms of its environmental goals, it’s also confronting a few market realities that cannot be ignored. EV adoption rates simply aren’t on pace to adhere to this grand plan of having 50 percent of all new vehicle sales be electric by 2030 and consumers seem broadly displeased with the options on dealer lots.


By softening some of the earlier regulatory proposals, it’s still pushing the industry toward all-electric vehicles. There’s just more room for hybrids and small gasoline motors during what is now a slightly longer run up. However, none of these changes are going to result in a resurgence of large, naturally aspirated engines — as the White House still remains broadly committed toward advancing electrification and tougher emissions.


The end goal stays largely the same, with President Biden’s National Climate Advisor Ali Zaidi summarizing the situation as part of the emissions rule announcement.


“President Biden’s economic and climate agenda has catalyzed an American clean energy and manufacturing boom,” said Zaidi. “From day one, the President has centered America’s workers, and unions that built our middle class, in this transformative agenda, positioning the U.S. auto sector as a leader in the world. The President’s agenda is working. On factory floors across the nation, our autoworkers are making cars and trucks that give American drivers more choices today than ever before. These fuel economy standards, rigorously aligned with our investments and standards across the federal government, deliver on the Biden-Harris Administration’s promise to build on this momentum and continue to spur job creation, and move faster and faster to tackle the climate crisis.”


You may embrace or disagree with the above the correct path forward. But the United States obviously isn't witnessing a reversal of White House regulatory policies. Emission targets remain rather lofty, but have been made lower than the previous plans called for.


[Images: Maridav/Shutterstock; SofikoS/Shutterstock.com]

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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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  • ToolGuy ToolGuy 7 days ago

    President Biden’s National Climate Advisor Ali Zaidi summarizing the situation as part of the emissions rule announcement... “On factory floors across the nation, our autoworkers are making cars and trucks that give American drivers more choices today than ever before."

    • You are funny guy. You make joke.

  • Vatchy Vatchy 7 days ago

    I am not anti-EV for everybody - just me. The don't currently meet my needs. Maybe when I'm old and don't go any farther than the nearest grocery store or pharmacy then it will meet my needs.

  • William I feel very sorry for those who attempt to use an attack on a product as a way to deprecate an individual whose politics they disagree with. They delude themselves and mislead others.
  • Arthur Dailey Have to admit that I love that interior colour. And also like the upholstery on the seats and the inside of the door panels. And when was the last time you saw a door hanging coffee cup holder? Some here probably didn't know that such a device existed.
  • Buickman this is about cars. I miss Robert.
  • 28-Cars-Later Can we end debt slavery next? Its getting to the point where its no longer voluntary.
  • Carson D Honda and Toyota still make the best American cars.
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