Dec. 18–The Trump administration’s fight with California over vehicle mileage standards has been a little bit of a head-scratcher, at least insofar as what motivates it. Does President Donald Trump just hate the environment that much?
Maybe. But investigative journalism by the New York Times reveals that Big Oil is really to blame.
For a while now, the federal government has allowed California to set more stringent fuel economy standards than the federal government’s. The exemption was justified, in part, by the number of communities here with tremendously smoggy air. About a dozen states have tied their own rules to California’s, and that means one-third of the domestic car and truck market must meet those standards.
It was plausible that California’s exemption would fade away someday as the rest of the county caught up. Things were even headed that way. President Barack Obama had brought stakeholders from all sides to the table to discuss better national standards. That group included the auto industry, and everyone agreed that average fleet efficiency of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 was feasible. If the auto industry reached that target, it would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 2 billion tons.
The auto industry wasn’t thrilled, though, and when Trump took office, it sought to roll back the targets a bit.
But if the auto industry wasn’t thrilled, the oil industry was apoplectic. Higher fuel efficiency standards would reduce oil consumption by 2.2 million barrels per day from 2010 levels and spending on fuel by $1.7 trillion. That’s a lot of lost profits.
Big Oil therefore quietly pushed the administration not just to roll back standards but to gut them. It did it behind the scenes because pushing for climate destroying, expensive policy isn’t exactly good marketing.
According to the New York Times report, Marathon Petroleum, America’s largest oil refiner, connected with one of the Koch brothers, hired lobbyists and started working with arch-conservative policy groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council. Together, they sought to convince lawmakers and bureaucrats that the nation is flush with oil and therefore needn’t worry about fuel efficiency. They even sought to gin up fake grassroots supports — often called “Astroturf lobbying” — on social media.
It worked. The Environmental Protection Agency is loosening standards and considering canceling California’s exemption.
State officials say they will fight repeal of the exemption, but it is far from a slam dunk that the state would win in court. The best hope might be simply to tie things up legally until the 2020 election when a new administration might be less inclined to do the bidding of the oil industry.
But there’s a lot at stake. In the short term, Americans who drive less-fuel-efficient vehicles will spend more on gas. More devastating, however, are the long-term climate impacts.
California and the dozen states that follow it will not stop climate change, but they will provide an impetus for the auto industry to continue to innovate and shift toward cleaner engines.
Of course the oil industry doesn’t want that. That’s sort of the point.
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