8 Jan 20

Is Trump going green? Yes, but no

The Trump administration sent an unexpected message on vehicle emissions this week. Its Environmental Protection Agency took the first step towards tighter pollution controls on trucks. But that appears to be a smokescreen, intended to shield the trucking industry from even stricter controls at the state level. 

On Monday, the EPA began the consultation process for lowering the legal limit for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions by trucks. NO2 is a health hazard, causing asthma and lung disease. 

State level
However, public health experts say the new limit will not be low enough to prevent respiratory illnesses or deaths caused by NO2 emissions. Rather, it seems the EPA is adjusting the standard at the bidding of the trucking industry itself – which wants to pre-empt actions to impose stricter limits at the state level. 

The EPA’s current rule requires heavy-duty trucks to cut NO2 emissions by 95% over 10 years. Dating from 2001, the rule has contributed to a 40% drop in national NO2 emissions. Under Obama, even tighter restrictions were examined, of the sort California now wants to implement. However, the trucking industry would like a new rule to impose additional emissions cuts of just 25% to 50%. 

That explains the EPA’s current proposal, which is more of a piece with Trump’s position on states’ rights to set environmental standards. The federal government has a long-standing dispute over vehicle emission standards with a group of states, led by California. 

Stricter standards
In short, the states are frustrated with federal government inaction on vehicle emission standards and want to set stricter standards at the state level – following the example of faster-moving polities like the European Union. This would force manufacturers to implement those standards if they want to sell their vehicles in those states. 

California is the state with the most pro-active attitude on vehicle emission standards, and the weight of its large economy and population add to the power of its example. 

For example, the Golden State is setting much stricter NO2 emission standards for trucks – which the trucking industry would like to pre-empt via the (slightly) stricter federal limits mentioned above – and that precedent may be followed by other states. 

Wider fight
This echoes the wider fight between the EPA and the California-led states on car and truck emissions. The Trump-led EPA seeks to roll back the plan to gradually increase the limits on environmentally harmful CO2 emissions by cars and trucks, as laid out by the Obama administration. 

California and 12 other states want to force progress on the issue by obliging manufacturers to comply with stricter state-level limits. But Trump at the end of last year revoked California’s legal authority to set tighter standards on tailpipe emissions than the federal government – an exemption which the state obtained under the 1970 Clean Air Act. 

On the offensive
But California is not admitting defeat – in fact, it’s gone on the offensive. Mid-November, California governor Gavin Newsom mandated that California's government agencies should only buy vehicles only from manufacturers that meet the state's own (stricter) Obama-era emissions standards. This week, a bill was introduced into the California state legislature that would require federal agencies in California to do the same. 

Meanwhile, the dispute has divided the auto manufacturers themselves. Under a deal with California, Ford, Honda, VW and BMW agreed to increase their overall mileage to around 50 miles per gallon (21.25 km/l) by model year 2026. That is close to the target set by the Obama administration. 

GM, Fiat Chrysler, Toyota and various smaller manufacturers have sided with the Trump administration. The Trump proposal would require a mileage efficiency by that date of only 37 mpg (15.73 km/l). Which side will win? To be continued throughout 2020…

Authored by: Frank Jacobs