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The misguided pitch behind Trump's new fuel-efficiency standards

The White House believes it has to scrap Obama-era fuel-efficiency standards because of ... auto safety?
Traffic moves north along Interstate 270, Nov. 24, 2010, in Clarksburg, Md., the day before the Thanksgiving Holiday. (Photo by Carolyn Kaster/AP)
Traffic moves north along Interstate 270, Nov. 24, 2010, in Clarksburg, Md., the day before the Thanksgiving Holiday.

Combating the climate crisis isn't easy, but everyone involved in the fight recognizes some basic truths. We know, for example, that we need to reduce carbon emissions, and in the United States, the #1 source of carbon pollution is transportation. If we're going to tackle the problem in a meaningful way, this is the right place to start.

With this in mind, the Obama administration created new fuel-efficiency standards for auto makers several years ago. The industry wasn't thrilled, but the policy checked a lot of boxes: not only would fuel-efficient vehicles be better for the environment, but as The New Republic's Emily Atkin explained, "As a side benefit, drivers would save money on gas and America’s oil reserves would last longer, reducing the incentive for energy companies to extract more of it."

Naturally, Donald Trump found it necessary to kill the policy. NBC News reported:

The White House announced Thursday that it is moving ahead on its much-anticipated plan to roll back the fuel economy mandate set by the Obama administration. The move is likely to mean fewer high-efficiency, zero-pollution cars on the road.The previous guidelines, which were reached during Obama's first term, call for automakers to steadily reach a fleet average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 -- though with credits and other modifications, the actual figure is expected to wind up in the low to mid-40 mpg range. Thursday's announcement means the new standard would be frozen at 2020 levels, around 37 mpg.

Of course, Trump administration officials can't come right out and say they support more pollution, more dependence on oil drilling, higher prices at the pump, and an intensified climate crisis. They needed some kind of pretense to present their new policy in a more palatable fashion.

They came up with ... auto safety.

Yes, according to the Trump administration, a nation with more fuel-efficient vehicles is a nation with more dangerous accidents. Officials have even named their policy the "SAFE (Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient) Vehicles" rule.

We're apparently supposed to believe that more fuel-efficient cars (a) will be lighter, and therefore more dangerous; (b) will encourage people to drive more, increasing the chances of accidents, and (c) will cost more, discouraging people from buying new vehicles, and encouraging people to stick with older vehicles that have fewer safety features.

Remember, according to the Trump administration, pushing this line is easier than simply admitting that the president and his team are indifferent to the climate crisis, and are desperate to scrap Obama-era safeguards.

So, is there any reason to take the White House's line seriously? Not really, no. Emily Atkin's report is a rather thorough debunking of the administration's argument, which explained "In truth, the administration has concocted a tortured, flimsy argument ... to scare Americans into believing that the government should scrap its most consequential policy for reducing emissions."

The New York Times' Brad Plumer published a related takedown, which quoted Antonio Bento, a professor of public policy and economics at the University of Southern California. "I don't know how they are going to defend this analysis," Bento said. "I just don't think it's correct."

When the White House says, "Critics of our policy are basically anti-safety," let's try to keep all of this in mind.