Trump’s administration to reduce estimates of lives saved by rolling back Obama-era fuel standards

The measure had been touted as a key reason for weakening the standards.

Cars drive over the Golden Gate Bridge on August 2, 2018 in Sausalito, California. CREDIT: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Cars drive over the Golden Gate Bridge on August 2, 2018 in Sausalito, California. CREDIT: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The Trump administration is planning to revise its estimates for its fuel efficiency standards rollback, admitting that fewer lives would be saved than previously touted. That concession is a blow to efforts to walk back Obama-era fuel efficiency standards imposed to combat pollution.

One of the leading benefits promoted by the administration when it proposed the freeze to fuel efficiency standards in August was the number of lives projected to be saved. The original estimate of 1,000 highway deaths prevented per year as a result of keeping existing standards in place is now being dramatically lowered, Politico reported Monday.

According to one source speaking with Politico, the two agencies behind the findings, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), are having to revise their estimates, due to criticism over their methods.

The Obama administration negotiated the current standards with automakers in 2011 as part of a broader effort to decrease greenhouse gas emissions and protect U.S. residents. Those rules are projected to slash U.S. oil consumption, reducing national reliance by 1.2 billion barrels from 2022 to 2025. According to estimates by the EPA, half a billion metric tons of carbon pollution would also be kept out of the air.


But under former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, the Trump administration announced its intentions to target the Obama-era standards in April, a process the administration has been rolling out in the months since. A lawsuit quickly followed, with 17 states and the District of Columbia pushing back against the freeze.

Now, the administration’s key findings justifying the freeze are under fire.

At issue is the administration’s methodology, which critics say failed to properly account for the length of time owners keep their cars, in addition to possible mileage on newer cars with better fuel efficiency.

When the Trump administration proposed freezing the standards earlier this year, officials argued that requiring vehicles with superior fuel efficiency would prove too costly, thereby encouraging car owners to keep older, less-safe models. That in turn would, per the EPA and NHTSA estimate, help to drive up deaths.

Experts and the EPA’s own staff questioned those findings and warred with the transportation agency over the freeze. According to a June 18 email, senior EPA officials warned the Office of Management and Budget that the Trump administration’s efforts would actually have the opposite of their intended effect.


“EPA’s technical issues have not been addressed, and the analysis performed… does not represent what EPA considers to be the best, or the most up-to-date, information available to EPA,” wrote William Charmley, the head of the assessments and standards division within the EPA’s office of transportation and air quality. Charmley asked for the EPA’s name to be removed from the Preliminary Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA), citing concerns over the document’s claims, but ultimately the agency’s name was included.

The fight over the standards is set to continue with the freeze’s ultimate estimated impact set for revision. While the NHTSA said that the freeze would still “prevent thousands of on-road fatalities and injuries,” it is unclear how that total matches up to the Trump administration’s initial finding of 12,700 lives saved over the next decade.

Also at issue is the administration’s fight with the California Air Resources Board (CARB). The state sets its own fuel efficiency standards under a waiver that it has renewed repeatedly since 1967. Since 1977, 12 states and the District of Columbia have also adopted California’s standards, which are far more stringent than their federal equivalent. But the Trump administration has moved to revoke the waiver, sparking outrage from California.

Xavier Becerra, California’s attorney general, has fought to preserve the state’s waiver — if revoked, it would impact some 40 percent of U.S. vehicles. Automakers have also expressed concern with the administration’s freeze more broadly, as many have already adjusted their products in keeping with the Obama fuel efficiency standards.

Becerra has argued that the EPA does not have the authority to revoke California’s waiver under the Clean Air Act. Officials in a number of states pushing back against the general fuel standards freeze have also indicated that they expect to win their fight with the Trump administration.