Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards Should Be Reviewed

Recently, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt said that the Midterm Evaluation process for the greenhouse gas emissions standards for cars and light trucks for model years 2022-2025 is finished, and in light of recent data, the current standards are not appropriate and should be revised. He said that the EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will begin a rulemaking process and hear from the public about more appropriate GHG emissions standards and Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards.

I’m not surprised. Pruitt has reversed multiple environmental rules. Indeed, I’ve been outraged by the effort to reverse nearly everything President Barack Obama did on the matter of environmental protection. Pruitt has been wrong, extremely wrong, and inappropriately aggressive in attacking our environment in the name of environmental protection. But even a broken clock can be right twice a day, and a second look at Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards may be appropriate. Critics of the Pruitt action must consider both economic and environmental concerns during the process of examining, and perhaps revising CAFE standards, especially as they impact low-income communities.

Today, the average internal combustion engine gets 24.7 miles per gallon. According to the current projected CAFE standard, automakers must take drastic measures to increase this fuel efficiency number to 54.5 mpg by 2025. These goals set by the Obama administration may be too steep and require a technological stretch that will require the radical and expensive restructuring of the U.S. automotive market that ignores consumer preference and economic standing.

In other words, setting CAFE standards requires the manufacture of lighter vehicles, even as consumers are requiring larger ones. Light, large vehicles may pose more highway risks, as is evidenced by the increased number of fatalities and serious injuries that have occurred on highways due to higher miles per gallon standards.

Additionally, the costs associated with CAFE standards may encourage people to hold on to older, even less fuel-efficient vehicles because newer ones are far more costly. And consumer preferences for large vehicles are clear. Ford Motor Co. said it will produce fewer sedans because consumers want pickup trucks and SUVs. Pickup trucks and SUVS made up 20 percent of new vehicle sales in 1975. A year ago, that number was about 60 percent.

The intentions behind the strict CAFE standards were admirable, and consumers have saved money because the standards have promoted more fuel efficiency. At the same time, the goal to increase fuel efficiency to 49.5 mpg by 2025 appears unrealistic, and it seems that no harm is done in hearing from the public about whether these standards are an economic disadvantage to some consumers.

Everyone doesn’t live in an urban area where public transportation is easily accessible and cars are nearly unnecessary. Everybody can’t take advantage of the tax subsidy offered to those who purchase electric vehicles, which are more costly to maintain than conventional vehicles and may have unexplored environmental downsides.

Our transportation infrastructure is broken, and CAFE standards won’t fix it. We need to spend more dollars on efficient, effective public transportation, which is the best way to get people out of their cars. We need to do highway repair, which will make automobile travel safer and more fuel-efficient. Until EV efficiency is proven, EV subsidies should be eliminated. And the economic impact of CAFE standards on low- and moderate-income drivers needs to be explored.

More than a dozen states say they will sue if CAFE standards are relaxed. Even as they sue, I hope they will do the necessary research to make sure that low- and moderate-income drivers aren’t bearing the brunt of these standards. As passionately as I feel about the environment, I feel equally passionate about economic justice.

The Pruitt decision to re-examine fuel efficiency standards for automobiles is not necessarily a negative. While Pruitt’s hostility toward environmental regulations is disturbing, fuel standards must be examined.  Even a broken clock is right sometimes.


Julianne Malveaux is an author, an economist and president emerita of Bennett College for Women, and her latest book, “Are We Better Off? Race, Obama and Public Policy,” is available on Amazon.

Morning Consult welcomes op-ed submissions on policy, politics and business strategy in our coverage areas. Updated submission guidelines can be found here.

Morning Consult