The Trump administration is set to repeal a rule finalized in the last days of the Obama administration that would have required states and some cities to take greenhouse gas emissions into account when planning transportation projects.
The rule change, finalized by the Department of Transportation (DOT) on Tuesday and set to be published to the Federal Register in the coming days where it will become official, removes the obligation for states and cities to measure greenhouse gas emissions from fuel use by vehicles on their roads that would be associated with new projects such as expanding highways. Targets for limiting greenhouse gas emissions will not be required either. The government estimates this will save $1.67 million annually.
“This repeal will alleviate a burden on State DOTs [Department of Transport] and MPOs [Metropolitan Planning Organization] that imposed costs with no predictable level of benefits,” the final rule published on DOT’s website states. “This final rule does not prohibit State DOTs and MPOs from choosing voluntarily to measure and assess CO2 emissions.”
The climate rules were part of a broad spectrum of Federal Highway Administration performance measures that were finalized on January 18, 2017. The Trump administration had originally sought to delay implementation of the climate portion of the rule, stating in a notice published in the Federal Register in May that portions of the rule specifically dealing with greenhouse gas emissions measurements “would benefit from further notice and comment.”
The Department of Transportation, however, never sought comment on their decision to delay implementation. A coalition of state and environmental groups then sued the department for not soliciting comment on the delay, and a court compelled the department to implement the rules. They did, but shortly after announced that they would be formally repealing the rule altogether.
Opponents of the rules claimed that the underlying laws that spurred the performance measures — the 2012 and 2015 highway infrastructure bills — do not authorize the department to measure greenhouse gas emissions. But proponents of the rules argue that measuring greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector is crucial to combating climate change.
“The transportation sector, according to some recent analysis, is now jockeying with first place in terms of volume of greenhouse emissions,” Deron Lovaas, a senior policy advisor with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told ThinkProgress. “Transportation is arguably a bigger problem [than power plants] right now in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.”
For the past 40 years, the energy sector has been the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. economy. But due to the drop in coal use and the increase in natural gas as a power source — as well as a rapid increase in the deployment of renewable energy in recent years — energy sector emissions have been declining while transportation sector emissions have been steadily increasing since the recession of the mid-2000s. In 2016, the transportation sector emitted 1.9 billion tons of carbon dioxide, while the energy sector emitted 1.8 billion tons, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
When it comes to reducing carbon emissions from the transportation sector, Lovaas adds, “there aren’t a lot of variables you can play with.” Increasing vehicle efficiency and creating cleaner fuel sources can both help, but “no matter how efficient the vehicle becomes or how clean the fuel, that can all be overwhelmed if trip miles continue increasing,” Lovaas said. Put another way, car and fuel efficiency can only go so far to overcome the boost on traffic created by building new roads — and more traffic means more planet-warming emissions.
The Obama administration’s greenhouse gas highway rule aimed to tackle that third variable in reducing transportation emissions: how much — and how many — cars are traveling on a road at any given time. It would have required state and regional highway planners that use federal dollars to estimate any potential increase in greenhouse gas emissions associated with new projects, and use those measurements to hit targets associated with emissions reductions.
Proponents of the move argue that it would have helped reduce climate change by encouraging planners to create high density housing or expand public transportation. They also argue that simply measuring pollution metrics associated with transportation projects can help reveal low-hanging fruit for reducing pollution — similar to what happened in the building industry when energy benchmarks became widespread.
“It’s alarming with what seems to be happening at DOT,” Lovaas said. “They seem to be taking a step back on performance management, especially when it comes to heat trapping emissions.”
During his first State of the Union address, Trump called for a $1.5 trillion investment in infrastructure, saying “We will build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways and waterways all across our land.”
CLARIFICATION: This piece was updated to clarify that the Department of Transport did not take comment on the decision to delay the implementation of the Obama-era rule. The department did seek comment on the repeal of the rule.