Trump Administration Rolls Back Obama-Era Fuel-Efficiency Standards

April 02, 2020

The administration of US President Donald Trump issued the Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient Vehicles Rule (SAFE Rule) on March 31. A joint effort of the US Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the SAFE Rule rolls back vehicle fuel-efficiency standards adopted under the administration of President Barack Obama. President Trump has championed the rule as his signature deregulatory action.

SAFE Rule Fuel-Efficiency Standards

While the Obama-era rules called for nearly 5% annual increases in the average fuel efficiency of US cars, pickup trucks, and sport-utility vehicles between model years 2021 and 2026, the SAFE Rule requires only 1.5% annual increases in average fuel efficiency.

The SAFE Rule requires US vehicle fleets to average 40.4 miles per gallon by 2026. Obama-era standards, in contrast, would have required these fleets to average 46.7 miles per gallon. The Trump administration claims that its adjusted standards strike a healthier balance between environmental and economic concerns. According to the administration, the SAFE Rule will save automakers up to $100 billion in regulatory costs, which they can use to reduce consumer prices and improve vehicle safety.

As US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler recently stated: “Now, more than ever, this country needs a sensible national program that strikes the right regulatory balance for the environment, the auto industry, the economy, safety and American families. The final SAFE rule does all of those things." Earlier Trump administration plans had proposed freezing fuel-efficiency standards at 2020 levels (i.e., requiring no fuel-efficiency improvements through 2026).

SAFE Rule Sparks Criticism, Litigation

Opponents of the SAFE Rule claim that it risks public health and safety to achieve dubious economic goals. Critics contend that

One former EPA official opined to news outlets that this policy “will net [a] negative benefit for society and reduce fuel savings.”

The SAFE Rule has also spurred litigation seeking to invalidate it. In particular, California is leading a coalition suing in the US District Court for the District of Columbia to set aside the SAFE Rule. The coalition includes numerous states and two cities, and counts several prominent automakers among its supporters. With the Trump administration’s issuance of the final rule, the coalition is seeking injunctive relief while the court weighs whether to set aside the rule. A full decision on the merits could take years, however, and the case may ultimately land in the US Supreme Court.


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