Opinion by Michael Sivak
The mission of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is to protect human health and the environment. However, as the EPA is getting ready to relax the future vehicle fuel economy standards, the time is right to consider whether, under the current administration, this agency’s mission is, in fact, being carried out.
There are two ways by which we can evaluate that question: the degree to which the agency is successful in defending its share of the limited budget pie against the demands of other well-deserving federal agencies, and the degree to which its rulemaking actions to protect human health and the environment build upon the actions taken by previous administrations. And the findings are not good.
Let’s first examine the success in defending the EPA budget. Under President Trump’s 2019 budget proposal (which must have been discussed with the EPA administrator), the EPA’s funding would be reduced by 26%, more than any other major federal department. This would result in eliminating about a fifth of all EPA’s workforce.
And how about rulemaking actions that would strengthen the existing environmental protection? Just the opposite tends to be the case with the current EPA. According to one tally, as of late January 2018, 67 environmental rules were on their way out, with the EPA involved in nearly one-third of the reversals. And that brings me back to the impending relaxation of fuel economy standards.
Transportation currently accounts for 29% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (up from 24% in 1990). (In contrast, emissions from industry declined to 29% of the total from 36% in 1990.) In turn, passenger cars and light trucks (the focus of the standards in question) account for 60% of all transportation emissions. So if the EPA is serious about protecting the environment, it needs to keep standards in place that will curtail the huge amount of emissions from passenger cars and light trucks.
On a positive side, there has been a continuing improvement in the fuel economy of both new passenger cars and new light trucks. However, the net benefits of these improvements have been dampened by the continuing increase in the proportion of light trucks sold relative to passenger cars, because light trucks tend to have poorer fuel economy than passenger cars.
To live up to its name and its stated mission, the Environmental Protection Agency needs to better protect its funding. It is even more important that the funds that it has should be directed toward strengthening environmental protection, and not lessening it.
Michael Sivak is the managing director of Sivak Applied Research and the former director of Sustainable Worldwide Transportation at the University of Michigan.