On Tuesday, the EPA and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration finalized what is likely their most impactful and controversial rulemaking to-date during the Trump administration, the Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles rule. The SAFE rule modifies the 2012 Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards, reducing the projected overall industry average required fuel economy for model year 2021 to 2026 vehicles from 46.7 miles per gallon to 40.4 mpg.
While numerous media reports are already propagating claims that this “regulatory rollback” will threaten public health, the rule still requires a fuel economy increase of 1.5% per year over the next six years. It is only a “rollback” in the sense that it is less than the 5% annual increase required by the 2012 rule.
The EPA and NHTSA should be applauded for restoring balance to the regulatory discussion about fuel economy standards. Congress established the CAFE standards in 1975 based on the myth that the United States was running out of oil, and Americans should be required to drive more efficient cars. However, the shale revolution and the domestic energy boom have laid to rest those concerns.
In recent years, the standards have been pushed higher by the notion that stricter requirements will improve public health through reduced air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions. Because the myths surrounding vehicle emissions, air quality, and public health are now front and center, the EPA is playing a lead role in a debate it had almost no part in prior to 2012.
Unfortunately, the EPA has yet to provide a regulatory rebuke to the trumped-up claims that minute changes in air quality lead to premature deaths. Instead, the documentation for the final rule says that hundreds of people across the country will die from 0.8% to 1.9% increases in vehicle emissions, primarily particulate matter, which critics have seized on to say that the rule is endangering public health.
The link between low levels of particulate matter and respiratory health conditions is not “settled science,” and there has been a robust debate going on within the EPA about whether current levels of pollution in the U.S. are exacerbating asthma, lung cancer, and cardiovascular disease. In fact, many epidemiological studies challenge the scientific work underlying these claims.
Nevertheless, current EPA practices assume such a link exists and then use models to estimate the effects on life expectancy across the entire country. The reductions in life-years, often fractions of years, are then added up to create a “statistical life,” the EPA’s technical term, that is “saved” by air pollution reductions. There are no real people being identified as dying from air pollution, only a tenuous assumption that people dying of heart or lung conditions would live longer if air pollution was lower.
On the flip side, the EPA accurately notes that this rule will increase the adoption of newer and larger vehicles, which they forecast will reduce traffic fatalities by 3,300 and hospitalizations by 46,000 over the lifetimes of vehicles built through 2029. Those are real lives saved, unlike the statistical lives that are saved by reducing emissions by fractions of a percent.
While the air quality mafia cry foul over these barely measurable changes in emissions, the truth is that we’ve made our air vastly cleaner over the past several decades through affordable technology to reduce emissions from fossil fuels, not by eliminating fossil fuels. New passenger vehicles are 98%-99% cleaner for most tailpipe pollutants than they were in the 1960s.
Furthermore, almost the entire country meets the stringent ambient air quality standards set by the Clean Air Act, which are required to be protective of public health with a margin of safety. Most of these supposed premature deaths come from places that are already meeting the current standards. More stringent standards will likely not provide noticeable improvements in places such as California, the most vociferous opponent of this rule, which receives a large portion of their air pollution from other countries.
By taking into account the real-world needs of consumers, instead of trying to dictate their actions, and reversing the myopic focus of past EPA regimes on reducing air emissions, this rule restores balance to the policy discussions around air quality, public health, and economic growth. Automakers and drivers will all benefit through better vehicle choices and thousands of saved lives.
This commentary originally appeared in the Washington Examiner on April 1, 2020.