AP FACT CHECK: Trump team distortions on fuel economy rules
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump and his team are distorting the facts in explaining the administration’s decision to stop California from setting its own emission standards for cars and trucks.
The move announced this week revokes California’s authority to set auto mileage standards stricter than those issued by federal regulators. The administration argues it would result in less expensive, safer cars, and that electric cars are financially inaccessible to most Americans. U.S. automakers contend that without a substantial increase in fuel efficiency, their vehicles will be less competitive globally, potentially resulting in job losses.
A look at the administration’s claims and reality:
ANDREW WHEELER, administrator of the EPA, criticizing electric cars: It’s “a product ... which most families cannot approach.” — remarks Thursday.
THE FACTS: His argument that electric cars are too expensive for most Americans is overstated.
In a speech earlier this week, Wheeler cited a McKinsey & Co. analysis from March 2019 that found electric cars cost about $12,000 more per vehicle to manufacture than a comparable gasoline-powered car.
But for a new electric car, that price gap is often largely offset by the lower operating and maintenance costs over time. Tesla is the top-selling electric brand in the nation.
Federal tax credits of up to $7,500 are available for vehicle purchases depending on the model and battery capacity, though the credits are being phased out on General Motors and Tesla vehicles. Many states also offer additional incentives for EV purchasers, from tax rebates for the car and home charging equipment to the free use of commuter toll lanes.
EV drivers also don’t have to fill up at the gas pump, pay for oil changes or replace timing belts or spark plugs. A 2018 study from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute found that electric vehicles cost less than half as much to operate as gas-powered cars — $485 per year for EVs compared to $1,117 for gasoline-powered models. So over 10 years, an EV driver will save another $6,320.
Wheeler, a former fossil fuels lobbyist, has also suggested it’s mostly wealthy people who buy new electric cars, citing 2016 figures showing that of the roughly 57,000 households that received the EV tax credit, nearly 80% had at least a six-figure income.
Setting aside that wealthier households are generally more likely to buy new cars than poorer families, in 2016 the top-selling EV was the Tesla Model S, a luxury sedan with a more than $71,000 sticker price. But in recent years, several more economical models have come on the market and the prices of the batteries that power EVs have fallen. For 2018, the best-selling EV was the less-expensive Tesla Model 3, which currently has a base sticker price of about $37,000. That’s below the $39,500 average U.S. sticker price of new vehicles cited by Wheeler.
The range of electric cars is growing to where many will be able to travel more than 300 miles on a single charge. McKinsey, the management consulting firm, predicts that battery and other costs will fall to about the same as gasoline engines in three to five years.
WHEELER, on electric cars: It’s “a product that has minimal impact on the environment.” — remarks Thursday.
THE FACTS: Not so. Wheeler’s argument that electric vehicles provide little environmental benefit appears rooted in that EVs make up less than 2% new vehicle sales. But when comparing car to car, EVs on average have a far smaller carbon footprint than a gas-powered car, even for households where their electricity primarily comes from dirtier coal-fired power plants.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a gas-powered passenger vehicle emits on average about 11,435 pounds of planet warming carbon dioxide per year. EVs produce zero tailpipe emissions, so their carbon footprint comes from how the electricity charging them is sourced.
So, if the power is coming from sources such as hydroelectric dams, wind turbines or solar panels, the carbon footprint is much lower than for electricity generated by burning fossil fuels. Nationally, according to DOE estimates, that averages out to about 4,352 pounds of CO2 equivalent per year — less than half the average for gasoline vehicles.
And that gap is expected to become wider as U.S. utilities continue the market trend of shutting down coal-fired plants in favor of greener, more cost-efficient sources of electricity.
Asked for data to back up Wheeler’s claim, EPA’s press office on Thursday provided a federal environmental impact statement from 2012 — produced as the first mass-produced electric vehicles were just coming onto the market.
“He’s letting his political ideology get in the way of the facts,” Jeff Alson, a former EPA senior environmental engineer and policy adviser who retired last year after four decades at the agency, said of Wheeler, his former boss. “The advantage of EVs are becoming more and more stark over time.”
TRUMP, on revoking California’s authority: “We’ll be able to produce an automobile for substantially less money which is substantially safer.” — remarks to reporters Wednesday.
ELAINE CHAO, secretary of transportation: “Those rules were making cars more expensive and impeding safety because consumers were being priced out of newer, safer vehicles.” — remarks Thursday.
WHITE HOUSE: “The Trump administration is taking action to make America’s highways safer and our cars more affordable.” — news release Thursday.
THE FACTS: Trump and his officials are inflating the projected savings to consumers under his plan and may be exaggerating the safety benefits.
His own administration, in documents proposing to freeze the standards, puts the cost of meeting Obama-era requirements at around $2,700 per vehicle. It claims buyers would save that much by 2025, over standards in place in 2016. But that number is disputed by environmental groups and is more than double the estimates from the Obama administration.
They are also ignoring money that consumers would save at the gas pump if cars get better mileage. A study released Aug. 7 by Consumer Reports found that the owner of a 2026 vehicle will pay over $3,300 more for gasoline during the life of a vehicle if the standards are frozen at 2021 levels. The administration’s proposed freeze would hold the average fuel economy for the new-vehicle fleet at 29.1 mpg in real-world driving, while the Obama-era standards would raise it to 37.5 mpg by 2026, according to Consumer Reports.
Trump’s assertion that cars would be substantially safer also is in dispute. His administration argues that lower-cost vehicles would allow more people to buy new ones that are safer, cutting roadway deaths by 12,700 lives through the 2029 model year. But Consumer Reports says any safety impact from changes in gas mileage standards are small and won’t vary much from zero.
TRUMP, on revoking California’s authority: This “will also be extremely good to the environment.” — remarks to reporters Wednesday.
WHEELER: “This is ... good for the environment.” — remarks Thursday.
THE FACTS: That’s inaccurate. Documents from his own administration say that U.S. fuel consumption would increase by about 500,000 barrels per day, a 2% to 3% increase. Environmental groups predict even more fuel consumed, resulting in higher pollution.
Krisher reported from Detroit. Associated Press writers Hope Yen and Ashraf Khalil contributed to this report.
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This story corrects that federal electric vehicle tax credits are being phased out for General Motors and Tesla vehicles, but have not expired.