California is suing the Environmental Protection Agency after EPA Director Scott Pruitt moved to roll back fuel efficiency standards. California, known for having the most aggressive standards and the biggest market for cars sold, responded by suing the EPA. California was joined by 16 other states and Washington DC. The Environmental Protection Agency is being sued for not protecting the environment. The case will impact the future of electric vehicles, light trucks, carbon emissions, oil markets and the automotive industry.
What are efficiency standards and where do they come from?
In the US, we have fuel efficiency standards on vehicles. These standards were introduced by Congress during the oil embargo in the early 1970s that caused everybody to pay more for gas. Fuel efficiency standards are also referred to as corporate average fuel economy standards – or CAFE.
The standards require car manufacturers to ensure their vehicles are able to go at least a certain distance per gallon of gas. There is a set of CAFE standards for cars and a separate set of standards of light trucks/SUVs/large pick-ups due to their weight. Congress figured that if cars went further per gallon of gas, then there would be less demand for foreign gas. When you drop the demand, you drop the price.
President George W. Bush pushed for increased standards in 2007 as a means to protect national security. He signed the Energy Independence and Security Act which set a national fuel standard target of 35 mpg by 2020. President Obama pushed for more aggressive terms, though not as uniform, and efficiency standards continued to improve, hitting 30.7 mpg by 2014.
Crucial to note that California has been exempt from CAFE standards. California is an enormous market for vehicles and also more environmentally focused than the federal government. Therefore, California has adopted its own – more fuel efficient – standards. A group of 12 states plus Washington DC have chosen to follow California’s standards. Under the Obama administration, California agreed to align its standards with the federal government’s in the coming years. This is unlikely to occur if those standards are relaxed under Trump.
Now EPA Director Scott Pruitt has changed course. He decided two things. One, he decided the increasing fuel standards were too aggressive and unnecessary. So he called on the Department of Transportation to freeze its scheduled efficiency increases. The second action he took was to no longer allow California to be exempt. He did not want California to be the rogue environmental steward.
California’s Air Resources Board responded by voting to raise efficiency standards anyway. California wants standards to hit 54.5 mpg by 2025 and for it to apply to both cars and light duty vehicles. The vote set up a showdown with the administration which we will see play out in court.
What does fuel efficiency have to do with me?
Governor Jerry Brown said, “This is about health, it’s about life and death…I’m going to fight it with everything I can,” according to The New York Times.
California isn’t just a state with a big economy. They also happen to sell more vehicles than any other state.
In 2017, 6.3 million cars were sold in the US. California sold just over 2 million cars in 2017. That’s a third of business coming from one state. Note that car sales are distinct from “light truck” sales.
The developing electric vehicle market is also at stake. California’s incentives for electric vehicles has boosted the entire industry. California currently makes up about 50% of the entire country’s electric vehicle market.
The flip side of this is that light truck sales are growing. Efficiency standards present a costly barrier to manufacturers. Removing the standards, as Pruitt wants to, allows light trucks to be manufactured and sold cheaper.
So when California wants car manufacturers to be more efficient, manufacturers do not have the option to just ignore California.
And we also have to note that this is just the latest instance of states taking the lead on climate change, shifting the traditional centers of political power.
Is the media covering the lawsuit?
This is not headline news. Both The Washington Post and The New York Times have it buried as a bullet point link beneath the breaking news on Scott Pruitt’s latest misspending scandal. Times and Post readers have a precedent for considering Pruitt to be corrupt (some will call this “bias”) and therefore any action he takes, to be tainted.
Fox News viewers will hardly be aware of the issue. As of this time, Fox has no story on the lawsuit. Fox has given some coverage to the ongoing investigations regarding Scott Pruitt, often framing the story as Pruitt and Trump facing off against Democratic Congressmen.
The court case will have a more direct impact on lives than Pruitt’s corruption. So why is the story less prominent? For one, the court proceedings are just beginning. There is not much of a story beyond the fact that California plus 16 other states are going to battle with the federal government. Another reason is that this largely framed as a provincial issue. Media reports insinuate that the battle lines are confined to California+. In reality, this has the potential to reshape the auto industry, oil markets, renewable industry, and climate change initiatives.
What can I do?
Aside from not going out and buying a giant pick-up truck, you can take action to voice your support for your state to take action.
- Call your Governor – Seventeen states are entering the fray. Is your state one of them? Let your Governor know this issue is important to you. They need to hear their constituents advocate for a cleaner future if they are going to do so.
- Share the story – Here’s an easy one – share the stories on these lawsuits on social media. Large media is influenced by traffic. Right now they do not believe this is a major story. Sharing on Twitter and Facebook can shift those attitudes.
- Write a Letter to the Editor – Inform your community. This issue is going to be decided by those who take action. But the links between fuel efficiency and the impact on your community are not obvious. You can broaden local support by bringing the facts to your neighborhood.
Let us know how taking action goes. We may see more states joining the lawsuits because of your calls and letters.