EPA Proposes Fuel Economy Standards Freeze Despite Record Low Emissions

In 2017, carbon dioxide emissions for new vehicles fell to the lowest level ever measured.
March 8, 2019

Fuel economy standards set by the Obama administration have resulted in record low carbon dioxide emissions and record high fuel economy, according to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report.

The standards could improve the state’s air quality over time and potentially save Hoosiers hundreds of dollars every year.

The standards set in 2012 called for incrementally stricter fuel economy standards beginning in 2017 and ending in 2026. By that year, the rule would have resulted in all new vehicles having to adhere to a 54.5 mpg standard.

In an analysis of the first year’s results, the EPA found that the average estimated real-world carbon dioxide emission rate for all new vehicles fell to 357 g/mi, a reduction of 3 grams per mile. Fuel economy increased to 24.9 mpg, an increase of 0.2 miles per gallon.

Despite the gains, EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler says he will continue to push to replace the established standards.

This is a picture of a man working on the assembly line at the General Motors Arlington Assembly Plant in Texas.
Fuel economy standards set during the Obama administration forced automakers to improve vehicle fuel economy, lowering carbon dioxide emissions in the process. Photo by Mike Stone for General Motors

Wheeler said the report “shows that while the auto industry continues to increase fuel economy, there are legitimate concerns about the ability to cost-effectively achieve the Obama Administration’s standards in the near future,” said Wheeler in a statement. “EPA and (the U.S. Department of Transportation will have those concerns in mind as we move forward with our Safe [sic] Affordable Fuel Efficient Vehicles rule, which would allow the industry to meet aggressive yet attainable standards, reduce the price of new vehicles, and help more Americans purchase cleaner, safer, and more efficient vehicles.”

The Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient Vehicles rule is a proposal by the Trump administration to freeze fuel economy standards at the planned 2020 level and cancel any new fuel economy standards implementation until 2026. If implemented, the SAFE Vehicles rule would result in a 37 mpg fuel economy standard instead of the previously planned 54.5 mpg.

“The Trends Report shows that the automakers are continuing to make progress in increasing fuel efficiency, which means lower CO2 emissions and fewer trips to the gas station for Hoosiers,” Janet McCabe, former acting assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation during the Obama administration, told the Indiana Environmental Reporter. “Automakers plan far in advance for the vehicles they make in any given year, and especially to be competitive internationally, will continue to build cleaner cars. I don’t see an advantage to Hoosiers for putting the brakes on this forward progress.”

This is a picture of truck being assembled at GM's Fort Wayne Assembly plant.
According to General Motors the Fort Wayne General Motors Assembly plant produces 1,000 trucks per day, including the Chevrolet Silverado, the country's second-best selling vehicle. Photo courtesy of General Motors

According to automotive research company Kelley Blue Book, the three top selling vehicles in the U.S. have been the Ford F Series pickup trucks, Chevrolet Silverado series pickup trucks and Dodge Ram pickup trucks.

Of the top three vehicles, only one maker’s base model has improved in fuel economy.

In 2016 and 2017, Ford’s F150 pickup truck averaged 21.15 mpg, with up to 18 mpg in city driving and 25 mpg during highway driving. The 2018 base model improved to 21.70 mpg and increased its city economy to 19 mpg. The improved efficiency drove down the estimated yearly fuel costs from $1,624 to $1,583.

The fuel efficiency for base model Chevrolet Silverado trucks fluctuated throughout the three-year span. The 2016 base model averaged 20.7 mpg. The next year, Chevrolet improved the truck’s fuel economy to 21 mpg during the first year of the Obama-era fuel standards. In 2018, Chevrolet reduced the Ram pickup truck’s fuel economy to 20.7 mpg.

Dodge Ram pickups, the third best-selling vehicles in the U.S., did not improve its fuel economy for base models. They held at an average 20.6 mpg.

“Increasing fuel efficiency is one of the most effective, and fairest, ways to bring CO2 emissions down significantly.” - Janet McCabe

“We want American automakers to be at the front of the pack, so our workers can participate in that economic progress. And Indiana is feeling the effects of climate change, which are predicted to increase,” said McCabe, now a professor of practice at the Robert H. McKinney School of Law at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and assistant director for policy and implementation at IU’s Environmental Resilience Institute. “Increasing fuel efficiency is one of the most effective, and fairest, ways to bring CO2 emissions down significantly.”

The Sierra Club says that fuel economy has improved only because of public intervention and not automakers’ goodwill.

“Automakers like Ford and GM don’t deserve kudos for progress when they’ve been lobbying the Trump administration to roll back common-sense standards that protect our communities and prevent further climate disruption,” said Andrew Linhardt, deputy advocacy director for the Sierra Club’s Clean Transportation for All campaign, in a statement.

Other environmental organizations have joined the Sierra Club in their opposition to the SAFE Vehicles rule, but say automakers are crucial to greenhouse gas emissions control.

“While the Trump administration is moving to gut the clean car standards, its own data shows the current standards are working,” said Luke Tonachel, director for clean vehicles and fuels at the Natural Resources Defense Council in a statement.. “Automakers are innovating and improving the performance of their fleets, and tailpipe emissions continue to plummet.” EPA is demonstrating that the current rules are good for drivers, good for automakers and good for our collective future.”

EPA Proposes Fuel Economy Standards Freeze Despite Record Low Emissions