Colorado Editorials: Climate, clean air goals in danger
Climate, clean air goals in danger
The Trump administration has launched such a dizzying array of attacks on environmental quality in its first year that it’s sometimes hard to keep track of them all. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt have been carrying water for the oil and gas industry since taking office and making little attempt to disguise it. President Trump has announced plans to dismantle or dilute important initiatives of the Obama administration, including the Clean Power Plan and Clean Water Rule, not to mention walking away from the Paris climate accord.
But perhaps the most direct assault on environmental quality yet is expected this week, when Pruitt plans to announce the administration will revoke auto emission standards set in 2012, which mandate that the fuel efficiency of cars, sport-utility vehicles and light trucks continue to improve on an annual basis through 2025.
Obama won auto industry concessions on emissions in return for the federal government’s $80 billion bailout of the industry coming out of the Great Recession. As soon as Trump was elected, the industry began to lobby for a loosening of these clean-car standards.
But after making substantial investments since 2012 to meet the standards for 2018, 2019 and 2020 models, even the industry knows there is no going back. While it has lobbied for more “flexibility” in meeting the standards for 2021-25 without explaining publicly just what that means, it faces another problem: California and 12 other states, representing about one-third of the nation’s population, subscribe to California’s emission rules, which were tougher than the federal standards until Obama brought the national rules up to roughly the same level in 2012. California earned its carve-out a half-century ago, when lawmakers recognized its unique air quality issues — and early attempts to deal with them — while writing the Clean Air Act of 1963.
Those issues persist today. In its “State of the Air 2017” report, the American Lung Association rated three California regions — Los Angeles-Long Beach, Bakersfield and Fresno-Madera — worst in the country for smog. Ozone pollution, which attacks the human ability to breathe, continues to be a major problem in the western U.S. California has 11 of the 25 most ozone-polluted regions in the country, according to the ALA. Colorado has two — Denver and Fort Collins. Greater Denver was the sixth-worst area in the country for bad air days in 2015, according to Environment Colorado.
Under Gov. Jerry Brown, California has been moving to accelerate its clean air programs, including initiatives to subsidize the replacement of diesel-powered heavy-duty trucks. Trump has indicated a desire to revoke California’s waiver, but Brown has made it clear he will resist any attempt by the federal government to weaken its standards, setting up a potential legal battle.
The New York Times reported last week that Pruitt has submitted a 16-page draft to the White House which will be framed as reducing the regulatory burden on automakers. The effects of a rollback on Boulder’s and Colorado’s emission reduction goals could be devastating. Former Boulder Mayor Will Toor, now director of the transportation program at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, estimates that if Pruitt succeeds in rolling back mandated improvements after 2021, it will negate the entire improvement in emissions expected from the Colorado Energy Plan announced by Xcel Energy last year, which calls for retiring 660 megawatts of coal-fired electric capacity and replacing it with wind, solar and natural gas.
“There is simply no way that Boulder can achieve its climate goals without the clean-car standards,” Toor said. “If you look at projections for greenhouse gas emissions from transportation in Boulder, the biggest single reduction comes from federal standards forcing cars to get cleaner. From a metro area perspective, cars are one of the two big sources of ozone precursors contributing to smog and violations of federal air quality standards. The other big source is oil and gas production, a not-unrelated source. Rolling back the standards will increase emissions of ozone precursors, making it harder to clean the air here.”
Last summer, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper issued an executive order declaring the state’s objective to “reduce greenhouse gas emissions statewide by more than 26 percent by 2025, as compared to 2005 levels.” Like Boulder’s goals, the state goal relies on gains in the transportation sector based on existing clean-car rules. The Colorado Climate Plan, issued in 2015 and updated earlier this year, calls for “Encouraging the adoption of more fuel-efficient vehicles in line with advancing CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards,” a reference to 2011-25 CAFE standards for each of four types of vehicles established by Obama’s clean-car rules.
As in so many other areas of environmental science, the Trump initiative would have negative long-term effects on U.S. leadership in clean energy technology. Faced with the possibility of two different standards for new vehicles — federal rules for two-thirds of the country and California’s rules for the other third — even some auto executives are calling for a meeting of the minds.
“We support increasing clean car standards through 2025 and are not asking for a rollback,” Ford Motor Co. executive chairman Bill Ford and CEO Jim Hackett wrote last week in a Medium post. “We want one set of standards nationally, along with additional flexibility to help us provide more affordable options for our customers. We believe that working together with EPA, NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) and California, we can deliver on this standard.”
We would urge Trump and Pruitt to follow this moderate course if we thought it would have any effect, but based on their past performance, we don’t have much confidence in that. So the question is what can be done at the local and state levels to counteract a regressive move that could threaten air quality and efforts to combat climate change throughout the Denver metropolitan area, including in Boulder.
Back when a dozen other states were signing onto California’s clean-car standards, there was talk of Colorado joining them. The Obama rules, which were harmonized with California’s, appeared to make that unnecessary. Assuming Pruitt announces plans to abandon Obama’s rules this week, we urge Gov. Hickenlooper to pursue adding Colorado to the list of states committed to California’s clean-car standards and to revise the Colorado Climate Plan to reflect adherence to those standards. Hickenlooper’s support for massive fracking operations in and around residential communities along the Front Range has severely damaged his environmental credentials in these parts. We urge him to reclaim a mantle that previous Democratic governors of Colorado wore much more proudly than he has.
Beyond that, we urge all Coloradans committed to clean air and fighting climate change to recognize what a big deal this is. The federal clean-car standards were Obama’s signature environmental achievement. We simply don’t have time, from either a climate or public health perspective, to allow the corporate cronies now running the federal government to stop our progress now.
Daily Camera, March 31
Don’t roll back U.S. auto emissions standards
Scott Pruitt, director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has a lot on his mind these days. Even with questions swirling about the ethics of his $50-a-night condo in otherwise pricey D.C., and his taxpayer-funded first-class flights, he has managed to carve out a few minutes to roll back emissions standards. The man is a climate change-denying machine.
The emissions standards were developed during President Barack Obama’s first term. Back then, oil prices had spiked, Americans were less enamored with SUVs and big cars, and automakers were feeling a little sheepish having just accepted a huge bailout paid for by the American people. The interests and the policy makers came to the table and hashed out a deal to increase average fleet fuel efficiency to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.
Almost everyone was happy. Even the auto industry was on board. “Customers want higher fuel efficiency in their cars and trucks, and GM is going to give it to them,” a company spokesperson said in 2012. “We expect the rules to be tough, but we have a strong history of innovation, and we’ll do our best to meet them.”
If the auto industry and consumers hit the targets in the agreement, they would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 2 billion tons, oil consumption by 2.2. million barrels per day from 2010 levels and fuel costs by $1.7 trillion.
The industry also liked that there was finally a national standard. For years, the EPA had given California a waiver to set higher standards. A dozen other states were allowed to lock onto California. That effectively created two U.S. car and truck markets, complicating things for manufacturers.
To recap, the standards that everyone agreed to work really hard to meet would lead to cleaner air, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, less oil burned, less money spent and uniformity in the market.
Compromise seems to have lasted only until a Republican landed in the White House. Automakers now wouldn’t mind changing the deal, and Donald Trump’s EPA is happy to oblige. They are kicking around new 2025 fleet targets of only 44 miles per gallon for cars and 31 for pickups and SUVs.
In fairness, the standards were always supposed to be reviewed. The Obama administration had started that process. When it found out Hillary Clinton would not complete it, it rushed the analysis to conclusion before turning the keys to the EPA over to Trump. That was a bit underhanded, but no worse than the sorts of things most administrations do in their final weeks.
California’s waiver remains a roadblock, though, and Pruitt is talking about rescinding it. If he does, California officials say they will file a lawsuit. They shouldn’t have to. The state received a waiver in part because it had cities with transcendent smog problems. That it also helps push the needle in the right direction for everyone else is a bonus. The auto industry manages to meet different standards in many markets around the world. Surely it can handle two domestically if Pruitt follows through on his threat to roll back emissions standards.
Perhaps the best hope now is that Pruitt’s scandals catch up to him quickly and Trump grows tired of defending him. A successor might not be so ready to undermine a good deal for cleaner air. It’s a long shot, but probably the best shot America and the future have.
The Denver Post, April 3
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