‘Is This About the Oil Industry?’ House Oversight Hearing Explores Big Oil’s Role in Weakening Clean Car Standards

 House Oversight Committee on YouTube

The House Oversight Committee, which last week heard testimony on the oil industry’s efforts to suppress climate science, continued to probe the industry’s deception and influence with a hearing on the Trump administration’s proposed rollbacks of clean car standards — rollbacks that stand to benefit Big Oil at the expense of consumers and the environment.

At Tuesday’s hearing of the Oversight Committee’s Environment subcommittee, the oil industry’s importance in affecting the weaker standards for vehicle fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions was front and center as Republicans led an ultimately unsuccessful effort to adjourn the hearing before witness testimony even began.

During the more than half hour delay, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez raised a question to her Republican colleagues:

We’re here to talk about the very pressing issue of cutting our carbon emissions and saving our planet, and we have an entire political party that is trying to get out of their job, adjourn this hearing. I just want to know what the reason for such a disrespect of our process may be. Do we have a reason for why this hearing is trying to be adjourned?”

I have one, I have a real easy one,” Rep. Kelly Armstrong of North Dakota replied. “The oil industry is the second largest industry in my state…”

Wait, so is this about the oil industry?” Ocasio-Cortez interjected, to which Armstrong immediately denied. “No, it’s about the economy of North Dakota and my constituents,” he responded.

But Armstrong’s initial inclination to bring up the oil industry set the stage for witnesses to reveal who really benefits from weakened fuel economy and emissions standards, as well as how the industry manipulated the rulemaking process that produced the proposed rollbacks.

Rollbacks: More Pollution, Higher Costs, More Oil

At issue is a proposal by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to scale back Obama-era clean car rules including fuel efficiency standards and greenhouse gas emission standards.

The Trump administration’s new Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles rule would freeze both types of standards at 2020 levels. It would also revoke California’s authority under the Clean Air Act to set its own, more stringent standards, currently adopted by 13 other states and the District of Columbia.

The consequences of this proposal are stark.

If the rollbacks survive legal challenges, emissions are expected to rise — one analysis by Rhodium Group projects vehicles will emit an extra 32 million to 114 million metric tons of carbon pollution by 2035. As the Rhodium Group’s Dr. Emily Wimberger testified, the rollbacks along with the revocation of California’s waiver could result in an overall emissions increase of over a gigaton, or 1 billion tons. By 2035, U.S. consumers would be spending an additional $193 billion to $246 billion dollars at the pump, and oil consumption would increase by as much as 881,000 barrels per day.

The Oil Money Behind the Rollbacks

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island testified to the oil industry’s interest in rolling back clean car standards and its role in influencing the regulatory process, which has led to the proposed policy changes. Whitehouse noted that the Obama-era auto standards would save consumers $1.7 trillion but that those consumer savings translate to lost oil industry revenue.

So the oil industry mobilized the network of front groups and trade associations that it uses to block climate action,” he said, calling out groups like FreedomWorks, Americans for Tax Reform, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM). AFPM is a major lobbying group for oil refiners.

As Whitehouse explained, many of these groups “masquerade as public interest groups but serve as mouthpieces for the fossil fuel industry.”

To maintain the masquerade, these groups don’t disclose their funders, but all are tied into the network run by fossil fuel interests with a trillion-dollar incentive to undo the fuel economy standards,” he continued.

He then revealed the known fossil fuel funding behind some of these groups that sent letters to Trump administration officials and the president himself urging the vehicle standards be weakened. According to Whitehouse, 11 groups that signed a March 2018 letter to then-EPA head Scott Pruitt had received at least $49 million from fossil fuel interests.

A dozen groups that sent a separate letter a month later to Pruitt and Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao reportedly had raked in a minimum of $196 million in fossil fuel money. Two groups that sent a letter the following month to President Trump were linked to a minimum of $7.7 million from fossil fuel interests.

Whitehouse noted the industry influence didn’t stop with letter writing. AFPM sponsored a campaign on Facebook to effectively flood the Federal Register with thousands of identical comments supporting the rollbacks. The effort deployed a front group called Energy4US, and was coordinated by the Consumer Energy Alliance for AFPM, ultimately producing more than one-quarter of all of the comments that the Department of Transportation received on the proposed rule. AFPM also drafted official commentary for the record and recruited Republican governors to sign on to the letter.

Marathon Petroleum, the nation’s largest oil refiner, worked to build support for the weakened standards in state legislatures and circulated a letter filled with industry talking points to legislators in Congress, according to a New York Times investigation published last December.

The Sole Beneficiary of Weakened Fuel Economy Rules

Given this evidence, the Trump administration’s proposed rollbacks of clean car standards appear to trace back to the one stakeholder that stands to benefit from less-efficient vehicles.

Without a doubt it’s the industry that refines the fuel that would be burned in less efficient vehicles,” Whitehouse said, again noting the $1.7 trillion incentive for the oil industry to push for the weaker standards.

Other witnesses agreed that the rollbacks seem to benefit no one apart from the oil industry, and would lead to loss of global market competitiveness, more premature deaths, greater global warming emissions, higher consumer costs, and other harmful impacts. 

There are no economic reasons to justify the proposed rollbacks,” said Dr. Antonio Bento, professor of economics and public policy at the University of Southern California.

Former California Governor Jerry Brown said the entire purpose of the rollbacks is “to sell more gas-guzzlers,” against the resolve of Californians to aggressively act on climate change.

Brown noted the state is facing “real terror” with the wildfires currently raging. “California’s burning while the [climate] deniers make a joke out of the standards that protect us all,” he said.

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