Credit: AP Photo | Evan Vucci

In a U-turn of sorts, automakers are urging the Trump administration not to gut a plan to raise fuel economy standards meant, in part, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Seventeen automakers, including Ford and General Motors, wrote a letter to the president asking him to take a more middle of the road approach.

Vehicles are a top source of air pollution; they include particulates, which are responsible for 30,000 premature deaths each year, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. Requiring vehicles to go farther on a gallon of gasoline will reduce these and other emissions. It also means that fewer fossil fuels need to be extracted from beneath the earth or sea, another environmental benefit.

With this in mind, the Obama administration raised fuel economy standards in 2012, with a target of 54.5 miles per gallon for cars and light trucks by 2025. The standards were not simply imposed by the Obama administration. Instead, the corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, standards were negotiated by federal regulators, car makers, unions and environmental groups.

The agreement called for a mid-term review, which included a scientific assessment that found automakers were exceeding the standards and that technologies needed to comply with the rule were developing quickly and cost less than predicted in 2011. The assessment also noted that the auto industry had seen six consecutive years of sales increases, “reflecting positive consumer response to vehicles complying with the standards.” Still, the paper concluded that the 54.5 mpg standard was too high and instead called for an increase in the 50 to 52.6 mpg range.

Automakers used the assessment to push for changes in the rules and found a receptive audience in the Trump administration.

Last year, the administration took steps to weaken vehicle fuel economy standards by freezing increases in fuel economy standards in 2021. Under current rules, which were negotiated with the auto industry, unions and environmental groups, a typical car would need to go 36 miles on a gallon of gas by 2025, about 10 miles per gallon more than this year’s requirement. Standards are lower for trucks.

The US Department of Transportation and Environmental Protection Agency argue that a lower standard will save lives — a rationale that was quickly proven to be flawed.

The administration also moved to revoke California’s authority to set standards that are higher than federal requirements. Thirteen states, including Maine, follow the higher California standards. California fought that move and negotiated with the administration.

Those negotiations have broken down, prompting automakers to fear a two-tier system that will lead to “an extended period of litigation and instability,” they said in their letter. The automakers did not suggest alternative fuel economy standards but suggested that the president go back to the negotiating table.

A different alternative, of course, would be for automakers to meet standards set by California and the other states.

American carmakers can meet higher fuel efficiency standards; they are doing so in other countries. For example, American car makers sell cars in Europe that get between 40 and 60 miles per gallon and SUVs that get more than 50 miles per gallon. If they make these vehicles for the European market, they can make them for the U.S. market, too.

Substantially easing fuel economy standards would be bad for our health and environment, and it would cost Americans more money. Changing lanes might make sense, but exiting the highway to continually higher standards does not.