We’ve been covering the developments in the fuel economy/emissions fight between the Environmental “Protection” Agency (previously run by an oil stooge, now run by a coal lobbyist, and staffed by commissioners who wrongly think air pollution isn’t harmful) and the environment they claim to protect, and today we’ve heard another doozy from the federal government.

After automakers made an agreement with California to voluntarily have higher standards than required by the EPA and thus save consumers money and improve health, the Department of Justice is now investigating those automakers under antitrust laws, seemingly with no legal justification other than anger over the embarrassment this has caused to their boss who considers himself a “dealmaker” and yet has failed to make a deal.

How we got here

Here’s a recap of events until now.  Under President Obama, the EPA finalized new efficiency standards which would require fleet efficiency of 54.5mpg average by 2025.  This is through Corporate Average Fuel Economy calculations, which are different and more lenient than EPA mileage standards, so it doesn’t mean cars would actually get an average of 54mpg (it would be closer to ~40).

When these rules were finalized, automakers were well on their way to achieving the milestones required under them.  The EPA found that automakers were not only ahead of the timeline set for them, but compliance costs were lower than they expected.  Ahead of schedule and under budget, such is the dream.

But then, a former reality tv host who failed to garner as many votes as his opponent in the 2016 election walked onto the scene. Virtually all automakers, addicted to lobbying against the public interest, couldn’t help themselves but to band together and ask the government to roll-back the already-finalized standards which were going to save consumers money, improve health and save lives.

Unfortunately for the public, and indeed for the automakers, their efforts to lobby an idiot who doesn’t listen to or understand anything were too effective.  He took the ball and ran with it, and recently the EPA announced a freeze in fuel economy rules at the federal level.

But it didn’t stop there – because California exists, and California is not interested in plans for dirtier air.  Since the 1970s, California has held (and legally defended) a waiver through the Clean Air Act which allows them to set stronger standards than the federal government.  The EPA has floated another challenge to this waiver, though challenges in the past have failed.

This waiver has been responsible for a tremendous improvement in air quality in California’s population centers, including a 98% reduction in some vehicle-based pollutants in the LA basin.  It has been so successful that other states representing a huge chunk of the US auto market have joined in.  Called the CARB (California Air Resources Board) states, these states automatically adopt California’s clean air rules.  There are currently 13 CARB states, though some other states follow some of California’s rules.  For example, Colorado recently partially joined the CARB states as a result of the EPA’s inaction on a federal level.

Automakers realize their mistake

When the federal government announced their rollback, automakers finally stopped to think for a moment and realized that they’d just shot themselves in the foot.  The practical effect of this would be to split the US auto market between CARB and non-CARB states.  This means automakers would need to emphasize different vehicles in different parts of the US, and possibly even produce whole new vehicles for different parts of the auto market.

This is a huge hassle for automakers, who would much rather have a single national standard – which they already had under President Obama, before they opened the Pandora’s box that is Mr. trump’s addled brain (such as it is).  So 17 automakers signed a letter to the government asking them to reconsider the rollback and return to a single national standard.  At the same time, 24 governors representing more than half of the US also asked for a halt to the rolllback, and nearly 90% of consumers agree that increasing fuel economy standards is a good idea.

These pleas to think about consumers, business, and the environment fell on deaf ears.  The administration had stopped caring what businesses or consumers think, and instead was listening to anti-science “think tanks” who had influenced them to consider even the automakers who had lobbied for this change as the enemy.

In the meantime, four automakers struck a deal with California to mostly keep the better Obama-era standards nationwide, giving businesses more clarity on regulations and consumers lower fuel costs and better health.  While everything leading up to this was a complete waste of time (and much of that was the automakers’ own doing), it seemed as if we had finally found a resolution.

DOJ response shows anti-business, anti-consumer sentiment

With today’s petty move by the DOJ to investigate those companies for doing exactly what Republicans claim they wanted all along (“self-regulation”), the Republican party have proven that this fight was never about consumers, never about the environment, and never about business.  Even when businesses make a voluntary agreement to help consumers and the environment, they strike back spitefully against them, trying to intimidate others from following suit.  Regardless of this intimidation against companies, California will “remain undeterred,” according to Gov. Newsom.

To be clear, the DOJ’s justification for this investigation is hogwash.  California’s right to make this agreement is well-established, and minimum standards are just that, minimums, and automakers can agree to meet higher ones if they so choose.  Several lawyers quoted in the New York Times article agree that there is no real legal basis for this investigation.  Even Myron Ebell, who heads the aforementioned anti-science think tank which influenced the government’s position in this fight, acknowledges that antitrust laws can be used by the government for intimidation.

This ordeal puts the lie to everything the Republican party has said about this fight.  It was never about high compliance costs, as the projects were coming in ahead of schedule and under budget.  It was never about costs to consumers, as consumers will save thousands of dollars over the life of a vehicle by having higher fuel economy and lower fuel costs.  It was never about allowing freedom to businesses, as businesses are being prosecuted for reaching their own voluntary regulation.  It was never about states’ rights, as the federal government is trying to stop a state from exercising a right which it has defended successfully in court for decades.  And they never even pretended to make it about the environment, either.

What is the point of all this?  Why is this administration fighting against, seemingly, everyone?  What is their endgame, other than spite over a self-styled dealmaker being outmaneuvered and out-dealed?  Consumers don’t want this, the relevant businesses don’t want this, it’s not good for the environment, it doesn’t seem to be good for anyone.

…Except, perhaps, the fossil fuel industry, which pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into Republican campaigns in the last general election cycle.  So this, finally, shows us where their loyalties lie.  It’s not with any of the aforementioned groups, it’s with fossil fuel elites whose products kill 8.79 million people per year.

So, to the reader: whose side would you take?

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