Reforming California’s auto emission standards will bring relief to working poor
California, where there’s been some talk of secession, has long had the privilege of regulating emissions as if it were a nation rather than one of 50 states. A challenge has emerged, though. The Trump administration wants to revoke the federal waiver that allows the state to act autonomously. But rather than fight the president, Sacramento should embrace his sensible agenda so Californians can enjoy safer, less costly vehicles.
California was a granted a waiver by Congress in the 1970s to set its automobile emissions standards “more stringent than federal requirements applicable to cars in other areas of the country” because “compelling and extraordinary conditions existed” in the state. Popular belief has held that the Californians standards have been beneficial with little or no downside. Even Republican administrations let the state act on its own.
But there’s never been an administration like the current one. President Trump is not afraid to question policies that have been running on reputation rather than performance, which in this case includes not only California’s standards, which are followed by 12 states and the District of Columbia, but the already-restrictive national fuel-economy standards that were tightened by the Obama administration.
Naturally California officials are incensed. Gov. Jerry Brown has labeled the plan “stupidity” while former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said it is “a stupid policy “and thinks that Trump is “out of his mind.”
The state’s official act of “resistance” was to sue. But what if the administration is right, what if there are compelling reasons to strip California’s exemption?
For one, cars will likely cost less. Competitive Enterprise Institute senior fellow Marlo Lewis tell us that according to the National Auto Dealers Association, the standards “demanded by California will add $3,000 to the cost of new motor vehicles by 2025,” which will potentially price “millions of low-income households out of the market for new cars.” Or as PRI’s Wayne Winegarden has said “if you’re a lower-income person … that can bust your budget.”
The other side of the argument says higher prices pay for themselves over time, thanks to lower fuel expenses. But Winegarden says that claim misses an overlooked point: Many can’t afford the added costs at the time of purchase.
Two, less-austere emissions standards should mean fewer traffic deaths. The federal corporate average fuel-economy standards, says CEI’s Sam Kazman were “recognized long ago as a threat to highway safety. That recognition came from analysts, consumer advocates, and even a federal court.” Manufacturers have stripped weight from some models to meet CAFE standards. Lighter, smaller cars fare poorly when colliding with larger automobiles, and are deadlier in single-car accidents. An Insurance Institute for Highway Safety report found that from 2012-2015, eight of the 10 cars with the highest death rates were small cars or minicars.
By rolling back targets from 54.5 mpg in 2025 to 2020’s 43 mpg standard, highways would be safer and the financial toll lessened. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Trump’s proposed rule “would save more than $500 billion in societal costs and reduce highway fatalities by 12,700 lives” over vehicle lifetimes through model year 2029.
A third factor is the plan’s environmental effect. While opponents claim standards must be continually strengthened, California’s air has been vastly improving. The Environmental Protection Agency’s recent report, “Our Nation’s Air,” which “summarizes the nation’s air quality status and trends through 2017,” shows that pollutants such as ethylene oxide, chromium 6 compounds, benzene, lead, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide have been falling for years in California. Carbon monoxide, PM2.5, PM10, and formaldehyde are also lower than they were a decade ago.
Finally, there’s carbon dioxide. California would lose its authority to regulate C02. It’s nothing to get worked up over as the EPA says U.S. CO2 emissions are 11 percent below 2005 levels. California doesn’t even produce enough — just 1 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are emitted here — to make a difference.
How much more do we need to cut pollutants? What is their acceptable level? A few years ago, when CAFE standards were less rigorous, an EPA air compliance inspector in Alaska said “You’re just not finding a lot of dirty cars anymore.” Though there had been “lot of effort” expended to run cars through the state’s emissions testing program, he said there were “few results anymore.”
Sacramento is calibrated to resist nearly everything Trump proposes, and that won’t change here. As usual, lawmakers will serve their own purposes rather than California’s interests.