A Sensible Move on Fuel-Economy Standards

Chevrolet Camaros at a car dealership in Los Angeles, Calif., in 2014. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

The Trump administration has revised automobile emissions rules, lowering fuel-economy standards from what they would have been under Obama-era regulations. That this change has been met with hysteria goes without saying.

The administration argues that the changes will save consumers money by lowering the prices of new cars and that this will benefit air quality by encouraging Americans driving older cars to trade them in for new ones that produce less pollution. That may be wishful thinking. The better argument is that loosening the rules gives automakers more flexibility to bring to market the cars that people actually want to buy — and to buy from the major American makers such as GM and Ford, which enjoy a great advantage in the market for trucks and SUVs but which are not always the first brands that come to mind for consumers looking for lean green machines.

The New York Times fusses that the new rule “could present long-term challenges to the American auto industry, as other automakers develop more sophisticated, high-efficiency, low-pollution vehicles while American ones focus on gas guzzlers.” In reality, that ship has sailed: Ford announced two years ago that it would sell only three things in North America: pickup trucks, SUVs, and Mustangs. GM gets more than half of its revenue from trucks and SUVs, which already operate under a slightly more liberal fuel-economy rule.

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Consumer Reports charges that the new fuel-economy rules “will cost consumers at the pump,” but American consumers have made it more than abundantly clear that they are willing to spend more on fuel in order to drive what they actually want to drive. When the current standards went into effect in 2012, trucks and SUVs accounted for about half of new automobile sales in the United States. Today, that figure is 72 percent.

This has less to do with anything that has been done by this president or any of his predecessors than with what’s been happening in the oil fields of Texas: Gasoline is cheap. American consumers tend to favor bigger, thirstier vehicles. The so-called transplants (overseas automakers that manufacture in the United States) understand this best of all, which is why Toyota builds pickup trucks in Texas and Mercedes-Benz makes SUVs in Alabama. It may be confusing to certain people in Washington, but Americans continue to behave as though they had minds of their own — and preferences of their own.

The critics of the new fuel-economy rules should give up on pretending that this is about fuel economy, about saving Americans money when they fill up their vehicles. This is about the global-warming crusade. Transportation is a major source of greenhouse-gas emissions in the United States, and tailpipe emissions are a big part of that. Congress has been given several opportunities to enact a sweeping climate-change agenda, and Congress repeatedly has declined to act. The pollution rules in the Clean Air Act were intended to address local air-quality issues (think of Los Angeles’s smog problem, once much worse than it is today) and domestic externalities — not to recruit the United States into a global climate-change crusade. President Barack Obama infamously vowed to act unilaterally when Congress declined to go along with his agenda: “I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone!” he thundered. President Trump has a pen, too. Using the regulatory process as a pretext to yoke the United States to climate-change radicalism was cheap and undemocratic — and it is, as it turns out, impermanent.

If the Democrats want to pass a law subordinating the economic interests of the United States to fashionable global-warming hysteria, then let them do it. We are confident that Nancy Pelosi would be happy to oblige, and Joe Biden has promised to out-crackpot the crackpots on the issue, imposing a net-zero standard on the United States as a whole by 2050.

All the Democrats have to do is bring the voters on board and convince them that a version of the economic hardships Americans are suffering during the coronavirus shutdown are worth continuing to endure for the sake of global warming—which is what a net-zero rule imposed on the U.S. economy would effectively demand.

Our admiration for the keenness of the executives of U.S. automakers is not unlimited. (We remember the bailouts.) But we trust them to understand what it is their buyers want better than the federal bureaucrats do. The progressives think Americans should not want what they do want, that they should desire other things. In some instances, they might have a good point. But the EPA is here to protect the environment, not to impose aesthetic or political homogeneity on the American public, or to act as a factotum for the Left.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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