As it has with most other aspects of American life, coronavirus crashed its way Tuesday into the long-running debate on how much pollution we should accept from our cars and trucks.

 But it’s too soon to say who will gain ground in the debate as the virus threatens lives and brings the world economy to a screeching halt, and who will fall behind.

 On Tuesday, the Trump administration finalized its plan to require manufacturers of cars and trucks – the biggest-source of climate-warming pollution – to boost their average fuel economy by 1.5 percent annually for model years 2021-2026. 

 That compares to the nearly 5.0 percent annual improvement Barack Obama negotiated with U.S. automakers and the state of California in 2012, and the 2.4 percent rate automakers say they’d achieve even if no regulations existed. 

 The rollback still faces two significant hurdles: whether Trump can win reelection and thereby block a Democratic successor from reinstating the Obama rules, and whether the president can fight off a barrage of lawsuits from environmental groups, California, and nearly two dozen other states.

 “Shame on the Trump administration for using the cover of a pandemic to roll back clean car standards that are critical to safeguarding the public health,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. 

 “It’s more than tone-deaf. It’s very harmful,” Xavier Becerra, the California attorney general, said of the Trump team’s decision to announce the rollback as the COVID-19 death toll reached 3,564 in the U.S. 

 “When we’re trying to address the COVID-19 challenge, it’s difficult to believe that we’ve got to divert state attention to tackle an unlawful attempt to change the clean car standards.”

 But Becerra insisted on a call with reporters that California will continue pressing its case that the rollback will cost “substantially more than 60,000 jobs.” The virus also makes people with pre-existing conditions like asthma more vulnerable to COVID-19, he said.

 In his conference call with other officials, James Owens, acting director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, didn’t seem eager to address the coronavirus impact. He stuck as much as he could to his talking points that the rollback would save lives and money by lowering the average price of new vehicles by $1,000, and thereby enable more people to buy them.

 In response to his first coronavirus question, Owens stated simply that the administration’s top priority is protecting the health and safety of Americans. In response to a second question, he said, “While this rule does not directly relate to the ongoing health crisis, we do hope it will help Americans get back on their feet, and that it will help automakers get back on their feet.”

 Dave Cooke, a senior vehicle analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, called the Trump proposal “a drag on both public health and the economy,” and said it’s bad public policy as the country fights through a pandemic. 

 But Ann Carlson, a University of California at Los Angeles law professor, said it’s hard to predict how the pandemic will affect “the background atmosphere of a court.” 

 For instance, as the virus shuts down transportation and other industries, it’s clearing the air of smog, and revealing mountains Californians haven’t seen for years. This could help convince a judge “that Trump doesn’t need to do as much of environmental cleanup,” Carlson said, even though that’s what the texts of multiple laws require.

On Tuesday, Ford Motor Co. said key factories it had hoped to reopen by April 14 would remain closed. General Motors Co. said last week it’s delaying future product investments and deferring white-collar wages because of the virus.

 Without a significant economic recovery, the number of miles people in the U.S. drive, the amount of fuel they use, and the emissions they generate, could soon hit 20-year lows, said Dan Luria, an independent auto analyst in Brighton, Michigan. The delay in product investments means there’s no chance automakers will hit their promised target of boosting fuel economy by 2.4 percent per year even without regulations.

 “In a rational world, this would be the perfect time to put a $1.50 tax on each gallon of fuel,” Luria said. This would help fill government coffers and guarantee that oil demand and therefore prices don’t spike back up, he said.

 “No one has the guts to propose that we seriously tax fuel,” Luria said. 



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