Last week began with some uncharacteristic good news on the environment from the Trump administration. It ended with a depressing reminder that President Donald Trump remains as determined as ever to undermine public health and humans’ natural habitat.
After a disturbing and record-setting year-and-a-half-long vacancy, Trump selected a well-qualified meteorologist, Kelvin Droegemeier, to be White House science adviser. Droegemeier has worked at the University of Oklahoma for three decades, and has served on the National Science Board since 2004.
Unlike many of the other people the president has elevated, Droegemeier is no climate-change denier. His selection came as a relief to mainstream scientists.
As if to remind Droegemeier of the tough job awaiting him, the Trump administration followed his appointment by announcing a major rollback in car and truck fuel-economy standards, marking a substantial blow to the nation’s efforts to fight climate change. President Barack Obama imposed significant overall fuel-economy rules on vehicles sold in the United States, demanding nearly 40 miles per gallon by 2018 and more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025 for cars and light trucks. The new Trump plan would require no progress at all after 2020.
The Trump administration argues that freezing fuel-efficiency standards after 2020 would result in lower sticker prices, which would lead to more people buying newer cars that are safer and more efficient, saving lives on the road while minimizing the emissions impact.
That picture contradicts the massive documentary record the Obama administration assembled in support of tougher rules, as well as the analysis of outside groups.
Gutting fuel-efficiency standards is unlikely to substantially improve road safety, as carmakers could use new materials and technologies to save fuel. But the proposed rollback would result in more greenhouse-gas emissions, more unhealthy air pollution, more oil consumption and less saving on fuel over the life of the vehicles Americans buy.
Internally, administration officials have wrangled over how sharply to reverse course, with Environmental Protection Agency staff even insisting an earlier draft of the proposed policy shift contained “a wide range of errors, use of outdated data, and unsupported assumptions,” according to portions of a presentation obtained by The Washington Post’s Brady Dennis, Michael Laris and Juliet Eilperin. Nevertheless, the administration chose to aggressively attack the Obama rules.
Trump officials also proposed withdrawing a waiver California has to set its own fuel efficiency standards, a move the courts are likely to nullify. This has automakers worried that they will face a patchwork of standards from state to state, rather than the uniform regulations they enjoyed previously.
There is still time to avoid this wreck. The administration’s plan remains at the proposal stage, with seven alternatives up for discussion.
Administration officials should strike a compromise with California and automakers that would insist on continuing fuel efficiency gains and avoid forcing car companies to meet different requirements in different states.
Maybe Droegemeier could help broker the solution.