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

By Dana Drugmand, a freelance writer and attorney who writes about climate issues. Originally published at DeSmog Blog

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.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the delay in the House Oversight’s Environment subcommittee.

Rollbacks: More Pollution, Higher Costs, More Oil

At issue is a proposal by theU.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.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib poses questions to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse.

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 investigationpublished 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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  1. KYrocky

    More of the same. The greatest ROI for the men who control these giant corporations has been their investment in buying politicians. They have no problem investing hundreds of millions or even billions in fake front groups and political donations when their payday can be more than a trillion dollars.

  2. Another Scott

    This really lets Obama off the hook, but since when do Democrats criticize St. Barack? Democrats had large majorities in both houses and wouldn’t pass legislation to increase fuel efficiency or the gas tax. The latter might even be better as it would have an immediate impact and effect all vehicles on the road, not merely new ones.

    1. jrs

      So Obama in the 2 years Dems had Congress could have made it legislation instead of EPA standards. However, why should I believe the Republicans wouldn’t have just reversed these when they had congress for 2 years real recently? Legislation like this seems pretty reversible as well to me.

      And now the government is divided and can’t do much of anything. Besides I believe California’s ability to set it’s own standards is actually already in the law (going back decades). Well we will see where the CA lawsuits go I guess to see if that’s actually worth anything.

  3. Carolinian

    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.

    Clearly that’s not the case as a major beneficiary is also the auto industry which views economy cars are throwaway money losers. And don’t forget the American public itself which loves their bloated pickups and SUVs not to mention RVs the size of Trailways buses. Having just returned from a multi-thousand mile journey I can report these are practically all you see on the road. This observation also applies to very blue California–at least the part I was in.

    Ocasio and Whitehouse seem quite of touch if they think it’s only the oil industry that hates fuel economy. When it comes to the country’s love of the road and road hogs not much has changed.

    1. jrs

      SOME of the auto industry since some car companies are actually fighting the Trump administration (like Honda etc. I believe). Maybe just for good PR but nontheless (and if it really is good PR and thus good for sales to be on the right side of things, so much for blaming the consumer entirely, there goes that argument).

      I don’t get the need to blame people who have no say in this at all (Californians would almost certainly vote to maintain the fuel standards for instance) over people who are clearly SETTING the agenda (the oil industry, Trump admin etc.). I mean the whole economy we live in is unsustainable, but that’s a different discussion, this is more narrow and concrete, and doesn’t need to be derailed by that.

      1. Carolinian

        The car company opposition to Trump is more about favoring a consistent standard as I understand it. But it would be naive to suppose that they are some kind of AGW heroes since their profits depend on selling large vehicles. This is more true of the US car companies but the Japanese and German transplants are also big sellers of SUVs and the SUV disease has spread to other countries.

        Other interested parties: the highway lobby, the real estate lobby (vehicles allow remote land to turn into housing developments). So very much of US business depends on people driving around.

        1. rusti

          Having stringent emission standards is a barrier to entry to new market entrants because after-treatment systems to meet the latest CARB or Euro6 standards are complicated. Too stringent standards start to make other forms of transportation more economical. Good business for some tier 1 suppliers, probably good business for OEMs like Honda, bad for others.

      2. cnchal

        > I don’t get the need to blame people who have no say in this at all . . .

        No one forces customers to buy bloated SUVs and pickup trucks. Now, one could argue that a thick application of Bernays sauce to the brain inhibits the brain’s logic function, but that is not the same as ‘no say’ and according to the ‘mawrket’ every dollar is a vote of some kind.

        Your last sentence get’s to the nub of the problem. What exactly, would a sustainable economy look like? How would society get there with this inviolate quaking mountain of debt on everyone’s back and supply chains practically impossible to break free of? Got a hacksaw?

  4. steven

    As far as I can see the only difference between oil industry leaders and the Nazis is their victims don’t die right away. At least some of those Nazis were hanged for their crimes. So if their victims only numbered in the millions what is an appropriate punishment for killing billions – and perhaps a planet?

    As for the politicians they buy, the ability to chose between short term political expediency and the survival of the country and human civilization would serve as an excellent test of their fitness to remain in office. If the leadership of the Democratic Party were anything but blatant, short-term opportunists like Trump and his oil company execs, they would use this issue and the climate crisis to rid the country and the world of them (along with perhaps 70 – 80% of the members of their own party.)

    1. notabanker

      along with perhaps 70 – 80% of the members of their own party.
      The crux of the issue. They are happy to let AOC grandstand for TV cameras on “Trump Bad” knowing they have no intention of actually doing anything to fix the problem.

      1. Ian Ollmann

        Well, there is the Green New Deal. However, I personally prefer if the GND was 90% green and 10% new deal. It seems to be the other way around.

    1. steven

      Whatever the consequences for this discussion thread, I don’t think the comparison is that far-fetched. What’s the difference between knowingly introducing a gas that kills more or less instantaneously and one that takes a century or so to take full effect? (Or in polite society do we just not talk about stuff like that?)

  5. Tyronius

    Let’s not forget other emissions elephants in the transportation room; America has the least mileage of electrified railways of any modern industrialised country, even India. The oil industry’s lobbying is a prime cause.

    Underutilization of rail transportation also shows up in trucking industry emissions, not to mention highway congestion, accidents, etc.

  6. Jack Parsons

    What the Representative from ND needs to understand is: the oil industry will be gone from ND in ten years, with major retrenchment by 5.

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