COVID & Cars: The Benefits of Rules

A stop sign.

By David J. Hayes
May 28, 2020

A functioning society needs rules. We know this. We demand that our foods are safe, medicines unadulterated, tap water uncontaminated, and air, clean. Responsible businesses welcome these, and other rules. Rules provide a level playing field that, when consistently applied and enforced, freezes out fraudsters and inspires consumer confidence.
COVID-19 reminds us of the benefits of rules. Rules can (and are) saving lives. Flaunting them is making some people very sick, and killing others. And the lack of sensible rules, or their inconsistent application and enforcement, is hurting — not helping — efforts to get the business community back on its feet.
From the beginning, the Trump administration has seen little benefit to certain types of rules. Its primary target has been environmental, health and safety rules that the President accuses of damaging our economy. As claimed in one of his earliest Executive Orders, environmental rules are “unnecessarily encumber[ing] energy production, constrain[ing] economic growth, and prevent[ing] job creation.” He ordered his cabinet to “suspend, revise, or rescind” such rules and, later, to go easy on enforcing the rules. Last week, he used the COVID-19 emergency as an excuse to repeal or, at least, not enforce rules that remain on the books.
The administration’s attempt to roll back automobile emissions and fuel economy rules (the “car rule”), which 24 state attorneys general challenged in court this week, exposes the cynical goal of its anti-rules agenda. The target of the administration’s ire is a car rule that was developed with the cooperation of federal, state and industry officials to generate enormous, quantifiable benefits to the American people. The administration’s own math confirms that its weakened replacement rule will cost consumers an estimated 1.9-2.0 billion barrels of increased gasoline use, while causing an estimated 16,000 additional asthma cases and as many as 1,000 premature deaths annually from exposure to tailpipe pollution. And, in perhaps the biggest gift of all, it gives the oil and gas industry a free pass to increase the generation of greenhouse gases (GHGs) that are causing climate change from the largest single source of GHGs in the U.S. — the transportation sector.
So let’s be straight about what’s going on here. The administration’s car rule is a billion-dollar, government-guaranteed boon to the oil and gas and automotive industries. It locks in significant increases in gasoline sales and damaging conventional and climate pollution for years to come, while rewarding the car industry’s laggards for failing to keep up with their industry peers in investing in less-polluting automobiles.
Now take the car rule and multiply it by scores of additional environment, health and safety rollbacks that will generate increased profits for favored industries, while showing scant regard for the enormous, well-documented benefits that rules have been providing for human health, safety and the environment. This is what the administration tries to cloak in neutral, “deregulatory” terms. State attorneys general are not buying it, nor should you.

David J. Hayes is a nationally recognized environmental, energy and natural resources lawyer who leads the State Energy & Environmental Impact Center.