Since Day 1 of the Trump presidency, the auto industry had been hoping to re-negotiate the deal it struck with the Obama administration on auto and light truck fuel efficiency standards (CAFE) for the period 2021 through 2026. On April 3, 2018, then EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced that the Agency was rolling back the previously agreed to targets—proving that in the age of Trump wishes can come true.
Now, nearly a year later, the auto industry is learning the meaning of the phrase be careful what you wish for; it just might come true. The bad news came to industry representatives in late February on a conference call with the White House. They were told that the Administration had cut-off any further conversations with California officials and was going ahead with its proposed Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule that freezing the standards at 2020 levels.
The freeze has been called the Trump administration’s most environmentally significant regulatory rollback yet" by the Rhodium Group following its penetrating analysis of the rule’s impact on the environment. The call is not surprising. The transportation sector has surpassed electricity as the major contributor of greenhouse gases (GHGs) to the atmosphere; and, Trump’s efficiency 36.9 mpg is standard is 14.5 mpg more lenient than Obama’s 51.4 mpg.
Before going into why the auto industry is unhappy about the freeze decision and the role played in all of this by California, a bit of background will help to set the stage.
Nontraditional alliances are forming to defeat local projects
I had coffee with my landlord—Mark— the other day. He asked me about an article in the Washington Post (WaPo). The piece was about environmental advocates opposing the site of a solar farm that is to provide Georgetown University with up to half its electric needs. He was surprised by the conflict and said he naturally assumed that solar energy developers and enviros are hand in glove with each other.
Mark asked if such conflicts happened often? More often than one would imagine, I replied. As to the “hand-in-glove” remark, I said something about it being true in a sense—if the gloves were for boxing and each side had a pair.
I think Mark’s assumption, that things are all good between solar developers and the environmental community is typical of most people’s understanding of the relationship between clean energy project developers and the environmental community. More to the point I don’t think enough attention is being paid to these kinds of local conflicts by big-picture thinkers in Washington.
Such conflicts promise to slow the transition to a low-carbon economy. Whether Green New Dealers or carbon taxers no allowance seems to be made for opposition to the projects needed to get the US off the fossil fuel standard. The parties to the conflicts are not just climate defenders and deniers.
Leadership has no age requirement
The nation owes a debt of gratitude to the voters of New York's 14th congressional district for having elected Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC). I think it fair to say had AOC not been elected that climate change would still be vying for a place at the front of the pack of national political priorities. Today the causes and consequences of Earth’s warming are one of the top two or three policy issues talked about on Capitol Hill.
I would even venture that climate change is becoming one of the topics most talked about—or like religion and politics not to be talked about—around dinner tables. I credit the rising tide of youth activism for this rather sudden reversal of fortune.
What AOC, other newly elected House Democrats, and organizations like the Sunrise Movement, Justice Democrats, Fridays For Future, have added to the mix is a new voice—a very large and loud voice—being heard around the world.
Notwithstanding years of opinion surveys showing climate and the environment as abstract matters of voter concern, these expressions seemed never to translate into sustained political action. Congress has been virtually inert on climate matters for over a decade. The boldest federal climate defense measures over the period have been the result of executive actions and judicial decisions.
Executive orders—as we’re seeing—are as easily erased by one president as they were first written by another. Litigation is lengthy, and the judiciary is limited in what it can order. With the rise of student activists and their close relationships with dynamic progressive Democrats like Ocasio-Cortez, it is possible that the pattern of the past is about to be broken. For Mother Earth, it has already been too long in coming.
Joel B. Stronberg
Joel Stronberg, Esq., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC.