Seven years ago, representatives from General Motors, Ford, Chrysler and other car manufacturers joined President Obama on stage to announce historic new vehicle mileage standards. The industry-supported targets would have doubled the fuel efficiency of cars and light trucks in the United States to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.
A few days ago, the EPA announced plans to roll back part or all of the new standards. Let me explain why this is a uniquely terrible idea, something that should unify Republicans and Democrats in opposition. The rollback isn’t arcane policy, it’s personal.
The Obama-era standards made sense for many reasons, starting with our pocketbooks. It’s true that each car would initially cost $1,000 to $2,000 more as manufacturers research lighter materials and build stronger vehicles. This research will help car companies compete internationally and build better cars.
In return, though, we would save about $4,000 to $5,000 in gas over the life of each vehicle, according to Consumer Reports. (Because gas prices were higher in 2011 and 2012 when the standards were proposed, the estimated savings back then were significantly higher—about $8,000 per car.)
National security and trade deficits are also reasons to keep the existing standards. Despite a growing domestic oil industry, America imported five million barrels of oil daily last year from OPEC and other Persian Gulf countries. Imports added almost $100 billion to our trade deficit, sending hard-earned dollars to Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Iraq and Colombia. Better gas mileage would eliminate a third of our imports. It would also make our country safer and more energy independent.
The biggest reason to support the fuel efficiency standards, however, is the link between vehicle exhaust and human health. More than half of Americans—at least 170 million of us—live in areas with unhealthy particulate pollution and ozone in the air. That dirty air makes people sick, and even kills them. A recent MIT study estimated that about 200,000 Americans die each year from air pollution. The number one cause of those deaths—more than 50,000 of them annually—is air pollution from road traffic.
Air pollution, and smog in particular, are the reason California places so much emphasis on air quality standards. The federal Clean Air Act gives California the right to set its own standards for vehicles, pending approval by the EPA administrator.
This arrangement isn’t new. It began with model year 1969 vehicles. Every White House administration since then—Republican and Democrat—has approved waivers for California and allowed other states to follow California’s lead.
Despite tremendous progress by companies and through targeted regulations, California still has the worst air quality in the country. According to the American Lung Association, the top four cities for ozone pollution are Los Angeles, Bakersfield, Fresno and Visalia. The top seven for year-round particle pollution are all in California, too.
In case anyone thinks this is blue-state California’s problem, think again. Air pollution is red-blue color-blind when it comes to making us sick. Other cities high on the pollution lists include Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Dallas and my childhood home, Houston.
Let’s be clear about what a rollback in mileage standards would mean: Thousands of people would die unnecessarily from cardiovascular and other diseases each year. Our elderly would face more bronchitis and emphysema. More children would develop asthma—a condition the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates affects more than one in 12 American children. Millions of your sons and daughters have it. My son does, too.
Rarely in my career have I seen a proposal more short-sighted and counter-productive than this one. Please say we aren’t really going to do this. Please say there is still time to change our minds.