In Detroit, Trump Begins Scrapping Fuel-Economy Rules

At the site of Detroit's great WWII triumph, the Trump administration declares surrender on climate change, in cowardly cahoots with automakers.

Getty Images/Mallory Short/The Drive

Call it shameful, and shameless, in equal proportion. Today is a day that will live in infamy. And no, the World War II reference is no accident.

As we suspected, the hard-lobbying automakers have gotten their way. President Trump and Scott Pruitt—the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and climate-change skeptic—have begun the process of gutting historic Obama administration rules that would have nearly doubled average new-car fuel economy to 54 mpg by 2025. 

Achieving those standards would have cost global automakers an estimated $200 billion. But Margo T. Oge, the EPA’s former top emissions chief, underlined the benefits in a phone interview: Consumers would pocket $1.7 trillion in fuel costs, with carbon-dioxide emissions from new cars cut in half and 2 million barrels of oil a day saved.

As Time magazine noted, the move underscores the Trump administration’s rejection of mainstream climate science in a bid to boost economic growth. Those imperatives shouldn’t be at odds, but there you have it.

Climate change? To Pruitt, that’s what happens when you dial the thermostat at Mar-a-Lago. National energy security, including reduced dependence on the dirty oil that directly funds ISIS and other terrorist outfits? Forget all that: Let’s enjoy the cheap-gasoline party, because we know it’s never going to end.

Short-sighted policy aside, the location Trump chose for today’s visit and announcement—Willow Run, in the Detroit metro area—is so thick with irony you couldn’t cut it with a laser torch. The ostensible backdrop was the American Center for Mobility at Willow Run, a future non-profit testing site for self-driving and connected cars. But Willow Run is better known as ground zero of the Arsenal of Democracy in World War II, home of Ford Motor Co.’s B-24 Liberator bomber plant. My colleague and The Drive contributor A.J. Baime wrote a splendid book about this epic chapter in American history, when Detroit showed it had the ingenuity to face down global threats and daunting technical challenges. 

Let history record what happened today at Willow Run: The automakers ran like cowards and hid behind the president, whose administration demonstrably has no interest in climate change, and has scoffed at the international alliance to solve it.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt coined the Arsenal of Democracy name in a fireside chat in December 1940. He implored Americans—though the nation was still on the war’s sidelines – to arm the Allied powers. He urged Americans to unite, invoking our patriotism and sense of sacrifice, our shared responsibility. Following Pearl Harbor, some 350,000 workers migrated to Detroit as the automotive industry rolled up its sleeves. Virtually overnight, American factories converted to build staggering numbers of war materiel, from 40 billion bullets to 2.4 billion trucks and 299,293 airplanes. More than any city, Detroit helped turn the tide of World War II and rescue the globe.

In Baime’s stirring tale, Willow Run is where the late Edsel Ford became a largely unsung hero. Young Edsel defied his father and founder Henry Ford—the isolationist and anti-Semite who wanted to keep America out of WWII – by recruiting his own Ford team of young hotshots. Edsel essentially sacrificed his own life by shunning cancer treatment to stay on the job, overcome skeptics who said it couldn't be done, and get those B-24 bombers into production. If Edsel saw his industry descendants today, whining and refusing to take on a relatively simple challenge – building cleaner, more-efficient cars to safeguard Americans’ health, promote homegrown energy and limit fossil-fuel consumption  – he’d be turning in his grave.

There was no talk of shared sacrifice Wednesday, not a peep about the need to take on today’s urgent global threat, that of climate change. Instead, we heard more cockamamie claims that eliminating regulations will somehow bring automotive jobs racing back to America. We saw government abdicating its responsibility to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, sticking its head in the sand, or maybe the nearest snowbank. We saw GM chief executive Mary Barra and other auto executives looking to get theirs, concerned only with short-term profit and illusory advantage.

I wrote Baime to get his thoughts, and the author summed it up neatly:

“Willow Run, or the spirit of what is left of it, is all about America accomplishing impossible feats with the future of the world at stake. It’s about putting one’s country and important causes ahead of oneself. In some ways, our world feels more rife and scary than anytime since WWII (except for maybe the late 1960’s). If Willow Run finds itself in the spotlight again, it should be as a symbol of national unity, of confronting a daunting future with determination to do the right thing.” 

Instead, as the automakers schmoozed and jostled for political favor, let Willow Run today stand for surrender, for backroom corporate deals of the worst kind. The auto industry, apparently, is to regulate itself. 

The automakers and their enablers keep bleating that their hands are tied; that because consumers are shunning high-mileage cars in an era of cheap gasoline, they shouldn’t be required to move forward on fuel efficiency. It’s nonsense, of course: Nothing in the regulations prevents automakers from building and selling as many SUV’s and pickups as they like. Each class of vehicle is asked to boost fuel economy by roughly the same percentage, based on its size and footprint. The automakers know all this, because they helped write the Obama-era rules they agreed to. 

In any case, this isn’t about what consumers are buying today. It’s about investing in the future now, when auto sales are booming and companies are flush with profits and R&D money. It’s about preparing for the next fuel crisis, and the inevitable, potentially devastating fallout of climate change: Physical, social, economic fallout.  It’s about Detroit, especially, not getting caught with their pants down – as they’ve done too many times to count – when fuel prices skyrocket and they’re left holding the bag, with acres of white-elephant trucks that, suddenly, no consumer wants. Each time that happens, Detroit’s response is “Oopsie. Who saw that coming?”

When it all happens again, as this retreat from responsibility virtually ensures, don’t expect Detroit to raise its hand and pledge bold action on fuel economy and pollution. Instead, they’ll have their hand out asking for another round of government relief.

Let’s be clear: This isn’t about the free market. It has nothing to do with saving jobs, industry competitiveness, or regulatory fairness. That’s all a corporate smokescreen, from the same foul tailpipe of misinformation that Detroit has been pushing since the Seventies.

During this deluded photo op, the automakers did talk about self-driving cars, their favorite new diversion. Like flying cars before them, the autonomous car is a shiny toy to wave at consumers, a nice distraction from what’s important. Most people would agree that climate change and energy issues are vastly more critical to America than whether an Uber robot can get us to the pub on Friday night.

You want to defeat ISIS? Try cutting off the head of the snake, via the billions of dollars in oil money that’s the lifeblood of ISIS and other Middle East terror shops. Higher-mileage cars are already responsible for slowing demand for gasoline around the world, a glut of oil and falling prices. Why turn back now? Boost the fleet to 50 mpg and beyond, throw in a decent percentage of EV’s and alternative-energy vehicles, and watch the likes of ISIS and their patrons wither and die. At the same time, reduce greenhouse emissions and give consumers that $1.7 trillion in fuel savings, a hedge against future spikes in unleaded prices. They'll thank you later.

Instead of rolling up their sleeves and getting to work, the industry clearly prefers to kick the can down the road for another four years. Yet from climate change to global terrorism, these are the issues of our time, as great a potential threat as the Axis powers of WWII.

Instead of rising to those epic challenges, here’s the stirring, patriotic message from our industry and administration at Willow Run: It’s not our problem, or even a problem. Regulations are so unfair. Oh, and did you see that new self-driving car?