The Trump administration's plan to scrap vehicle fuel economy rules would lead to a surge of oil consumption that independent researchers warn threatens to paralyze the ability of the United States to make crucial progress in confronting climate change.
The administration's blueprint, as detailed in a confidential draft that was leaked to lawmakers and the media last week, would propel Americans to consume up to hundreds of thousands of barrels of additional oil daily and spend billions of dollars more on fuel, and leave cars and trucks sending more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than they do today, according to a study released Thursday by Rhodium Group, a research firm that tracks the progress nations are making in meeting climate goals.
The dire projections about how the plan would hinder the ability of California and the rest of the nation to slow climate change comes as state research already shows that a retreat on the emissions rules would hamstring California's effort to reduce the air pollution choking the state's population centers.
As California this week launched a 17-state legal effort to block the administration's rollback of vehicle mileage-per-gallon targets, Rhodium assessed the potential fallout of scaling back the rules.
"The decisions we make today are going to have a long-term effect on total vehicle emissions," said Kate Larsen, a director at the firm. "We were already going to have to do a lot more to meet our goals, even with the standards created in the Obama administration."
Rhodium's snapshot of how things would play out under the Trump administration's draft plan to freeze fuel efficiency targets at 42 miles per gallon — instead of pushing toward 55 miles per gallon by 2025, as the current law envisions — reflects a nation heading in a profoundly different direction than the world's other economic powerhouses.
The plan would have American vehicles consuming as many as 283,000 extra barrels of oil per day by 2025. By 2030, the amount of additional oil consumed could grow to as much as 644,000 barrels daily, the firm found. That is more fuel than is used each day in a large state such as New York or New Jersey. The increase could exceed the total annual oil production of Alaska.
As for greenhouse gases, by 2030 the increase from relaxed mileage targets could near the total emissions that Colorado sends into the atmosphere for everything it does, including from burning gas in car engines, producing electricity at power plants and releasing potent methane from drilling operations.
Transportation recently surpassed power plants as the area of the economy generating the most greenhouse gases. Its emissions need to be reduced dramatically to slow the pace of global warming. But under the administration's vision, they would keep going up.
The severity of the effects would depend on oil prices. If prices stay at current levels or drop, the impact in terms of air quality and climate change would be particularly acute. When gas prices are low, consumers buy more SUVs and pickups, which burn more gas.
Tougher fuel economy rules are particularly useful to efforts to reduce emissions in times of low prices at the pump, when consumers are less apt to turn to higher-efficiency vehicles to save money. Even when gas prices are low, according to federal data, the fuel economy rules still save consumers money over the long haul. The amount they add to the cost of a vehicle is dwarfed by the amount drivers save in fuel.
In the best-case scenario, drivers would spend some $90 billion more at the pump as a result of the plan drafted by President Trump's Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Transportation, according to the Rhodium Group. But the costs could pile up to more than $200 billion.
The plan, Larsen said, would also slow or halt key research and design developments by auto companies, creating a long-term ripple effect on the types of cars rolled out of factories. "These vehicles will stay on the road for a long time," she said. "It would be a real loss not just for the vehicles that come off the assembly line in the next five years, but for that whole generation of vehicle technology that won't benefit from continually improved efficiency over those years."
The administration's plan remains a draft, and it could change before becoming official. The draft goes further to relax mileage targets than even auto companies had been seeking. Some of the automakers are growing increasingly anxious that the administration is pushing too far, according to sources involved in negotiations. The companies worry the administration is inviting costly and protracted litigation with states like California, which could create years of uncertainty for the industry.
Or worse yet, it could leave the industry confronting two different mileage standards: one federal standard, and one set by California using its authority under the Clean Air Act and a waiver it was given by the federal government.
The Trump administration plan aims to revoke California's authority to stick to stricter emissions. Legal scholars are dubious that it would succeed.
"They are doing a retread of arguments that were made during the Geroge W. Bush administration," said Jody Freeman, who was President Obama's advisor on climate change and now directs the environmental law program at Harvard. Two federal district courts rejected the arguments at that time, she said.
But before the administration even gets to the point of making its case, it will have to persuade the courts that any rollback at all is warranted. The lawsuit California and other states filed on Tuesday argues that the administration has yet to do the work required to justify even modest changes in the fuel targets. The Obama administration backed its rules with thousands of pages of research and data. The Trump administration has yet to offer anything close to an equally exhaustive scientific and economic review to back its plan.
"If you want to reverse a policy, you have to do so based on facts and data that is not arbitrary," Freeman said. "They have yet to provide the level of specificity you need to do an about-face like that."