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Biden, reversing Trump order, announces tougher car pollution standards

Cars on a busy freeway
The Biden administration is trying to push automakers toward electric vehicles while also tightening emissions standards for gas-powered vehicles.
(Eduardo Contreras / San Diego Union-Tribune)

President Biden unveiled plans Thursday to strengthen car pollution standards through 2026, putting the United States on a path to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — though not as quickly as many environmentalists say is needed.

The proposed standards, written by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Transportation Department, would replace significantly weaker Trump-era rules that essentially undid the nation’s biggest climate change initiative. In their place, the Biden administration is offering a compromise that it hopes progressives can live with and automakers can follow.

The president also signed an executive order that encourages automakers to produce more zero-emissions vehicles and sets a new goal of making half of all new cars and trucks emissions-free by 2030. This would include battery-electric, plug-in hybrid electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

The future “is electric,” Biden said to supporters gathered Thursday on the South Lawn of the White House, with several electric vehicles, including Ford’s F-150 Lightning, as a backdrop. “There’s no turning back,” he said. “The question is whether we’ll lead or fall behind in the race for the future.”

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After signing the order, the president took an electric Jeep Wrangler for a drive around the White House.

Biden’s proposal would tighten pollution standards over a four-year period, beginning with cars coming off the production line in the fall of 2022.

In the name of climate action, California pushed the world toward electric cars. But building enough of them is creating its own environmental crises.

His plan is not expected to cut emissions as significantly as the standards put in place by the Obama administration nearly a decade ago, which required automakers to increase fuel efficiency across their fleets by 5% a year, achieving an average of 54.5 miles per gallon by model year 2025.

But the new targets would greatly exceed those set under former President Trump, who weakened the standards to mandate annual fuel efficiency increases of 1.5%, a level that automakers had already shown they could achieve without regulation. Under his rules, automakers had to reach an average efficiency of about 40 miles per gallon by 2026.

Biden administration officials said the new rule would require car companies to manufacture vehicles with an average efficiency of 52 miles per gallon by model year 2026.

In the first year of the regulation, carmakers would have to cut their emissions by 10% more than the Trump rules required. They would then have to make 5% reductions each year thereafter.

Administration officials said the rule would save drivers money at the pump and would decrease gasoline consumption by about 200 billion gallons over the four years. They estimated the standards would prevent an additional 2 billion metric tons of climate-warming carbon pollution from being released into the atmosphere.

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The proposal postpones battles over how much to restrict tailpipe pollution in 2027 and beyond. In the executive order the president signed Thursday, he directed agencies to begin work on the next set of standards.

It remains unclear whether the auto industry will support the newly proposed standards.

John Bozzella, chief executive of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, an industry lobby group, said in a statement that automakers would work with the administration to evaluate its plan, and called on Congress and state legislatures to invest in the infrastructure needed for the increase in electric vehicles.

In a joint statement, Ford, General Motors and Stellantis — the result of January’s merger of Fiat Chrysler and the French carmaker PSA — declared their “shared aspiration” to make 40% to 50% of new vehicle sales electric by the end of the decade.

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Environmental advocates cheered the Biden administration’s pledge to toss out the Trump regulations. But many of those same activists said the administration’s proposed replacement doesn’t go far enough.

In a letter to the president last month, they called for a 60% cut to vehicle emissions by 2030, a goal that would be extremely difficult to meet under the administration’s proposed pollution rules.

Having watched as automakers lobbied Trump to relax the aggressive Obama-era targets, environmentalists are wary of car companies’ promises to gradually phase out the internal combustion engine.

“Today’s proposal relies on unenforceable voluntary commitments from unreliable carmakers to make up to 50% of their fleets electric by 2030,” said Dan Becker, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Safe Climate Transport Campaign.

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“Global warming is burning forests, roasting the West and worsening storms. Now is not the time to propose weak standards and promise strong ones later,” he said.

Becker and others said that auto companies already have the technology to meet tougher standards than those being proposed by the Biden administration, but that they rarely use it in the United States. Automakers have pushed back, arguing that they’re unable to meet stricter standards because of American consumers’ preference for larger, less fuel-efficient vehicles.

In recent years, some automakers have been able to meet federal standards not by producing fleets of cleaner cars, but by cashing in credits earned by manufacturing a much smaller number of electric vehicles.

The proposed regulations, which have been developed quickly by federal government standards, are a piece of the administration’s broader efforts to push Americans to buy more electric vehicles. Biden has asked Congress for hundreds of billions of dollars to make the vehicles more affordable through tax credits, to electrify 20% of the nation’s school buses and to build half a million chargers by 2030.

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Yet the bipartisan infrastructure bill making its way through Congress accomplishes very little of that. The current deal includes $7.5 billion for charging stations, which would pay for only half as many as Biden has called for.

At stake in that bill is the president’s ability to deliver on his promise of eliminating greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 to prevent the worst effects of climate change. Calculating backward, most environmentalists say the only way to meet that goal is to mandate that all new cars be emissions-free by 2035.


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