The math on why the Trump administration’s fuel standards report is seriously flawed – Christopher Knittel

Christopher Knittel, George P. Schultz Professor and Professor of Applied Economics, MIT Sloan

From San Francisco Chronicle 

Fuel economy standards are an important way for the U.S. to combat climate change. However, a 2018 study conducted by the Trump administration proposes hitting the pause button on regulations, potentially leaving billions of dollars in benefits on the table.

This is a significant change from the Obama administration, which ramped up prior fuel economy standards. That administration mandated the fleet-wide fuel economy of passenger vehicles and light trucks to reach 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. The federal government’s cost-benefit analysis, completed in January 2017, concluded that this was technologically feasible and that benefits exceeded costs by over US$90 billion.

The current administration challenges that conclusion and recommends freezing standards at model year 2020 levels through 2025. Their analysis finds that the costs exceed the benefits by over $170 billion – a difference of over $260 billion from the previous report.

Who is right? The answer matters, because fuel economy standards are the last remaining major federal regulation to fight greenhouse gas emissions. The current administration has eliminated other regulations related to clean power and is promoting coal consumption. If the Obama administration’s analysis is correct, then pausing fuel standards will cost the economy money and impact the environment. If the Trump analysis is correct, then this may be the right call. There is a lot at stake.

My colleagues and I analyzed the differences between the two reports, looking to see whether those differences are supported by research and best practices. While both studies contain flaws, we found that the Trump administration’s study contains more.

First, the Trump administration’s study doubles the “rebound effect” – it assumes that consumers will drive twice as many extra miles if they purchase an efficient car. As a result, this leads to more traffic deaths, a claim that has been repeated a number of times. Yet, there is no justification in the research literature for doubling the rebound effect, so this focus on costs associated with increased accidents and deaths is artificial.

The study’s second flaw is that it ignores the global impact of carbon emissions, only looking at the impact on the U.S. This effectively announces to the world that the U.S. does not care about climate impacts outside of its borders. This is a major difference that reduces the social cost of carbon – the economic harm due to emitting a ton of CO2 into the atmosphere – from $48 per ton globally to only $7 per ton in the U.S. This impacts the bigger picture, as it reduces the benefits of fuel standards from $27.8 billion in 2016 to $4.3 billion in 2018.

Read the full post at San Francisco Chronicle.

Christopher Knittel is the George P. Shultz Professor and a Professor of Applied Economics at the MIT Sloan School of Management. 


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