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Keep the fuel rules on vehicles

April 23, 2018 01:00 PM

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DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnellThe Trump administration’s announcement that it would begin rolling back gas-mileage standards for cars and SUVs is an attack on Americans’ lungs and wallets, stifling innovation while worsening air pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency no longer will require carmakers to achieve a fleet average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

According to federal estimates, the rules would have prevented 540 million metric tons of carbon-dioxide emissions and saved 1.2 billion barrels of oil over the lives of the vehicles.

In years gone by, Pennsylvania had well-documented air-quality problems due to heavy industry and busy roadways. Thanks to efforts of both the federal and state governments and local air agencies, many of those problems are in the past.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) can and does regulate stationary sources of air pollution, such as factories and refineries, but setting fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks is beyond our authority. That’s why the EPA must make the right choices when it comes to vehicle pollution.

Rolling back fuel-efficiency standards is a dereliction of that duty and will make air pollution from greenhouse gases, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and other pollutants that much worse. In Pennsylvania, almost 23 percent of greenhouse gases and 37 percent of nitrogen-oxide emissions come from the transportation sector.

We have made great strides in reducing emissions from power plants and other stationary sources. Emissions from vehicle sources are significantly higher than from any other sector. Urban areas and communities near major transportation corridors see some of the greatest impacts from transportation-related air pollution.

Transportation-related pollutants can trigger lifelong asthma in young children, something that already affects more than 380,000 Pennsylvania kids. Pollutants can increase ground-level ozone, which makes it more dangerous for even fit adults to be outside for more than a few hours on hot, stifling summer days.

People with outdoor occupations, such as construction workers and farmers, could see their health impacted by an increase in ozone and fine-particle pollution. According to a 2015 report from the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the cost to the Pennsylvania economy from asthma alone is predicted to be $2.6 billion every year by 2020.

Costs to human health — more sick days, decreased productivity and higher medical bills — aren’t the only drain on Americans’ wallets from rolling back these requirements. More frequent trips to the gas station cut into take-home pay and increase costs for businesses and local governments with less-efficient fleet vehicles.

Weakening fuel-efficiency standards also will undercut nascent technologies being developed in places like Pittsburgh. Many automakers are moving ahead with cleaner vehicles — Volvo has announced that it will begin phasing out gasoline-only powered vehicles beginning in 2019, and GM will be shifting its focus to electric and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.

The DEP and the Wolf administration cannot force automakers to adhere to higher fuel standards — only the federal government has that authority. But we can encourage drivers to help us reduce the air pollution that comes from our cars and trucks.

DEP’s Alternative Fuel Incentive Grants (AFIG) program helps school districts, businesses and local governments use alternative fuel and electric vehicles not only to reduce their own costs, but also to cut down on air pollution. Another AFIG program helps build clean-fuel infrastructure so that cleaner-burning tractor trailers can drive Pennsylvania’s highways, delivering goods with less pollution.

There are grants for consumer alternative-fuel vehicles and electric vehicles, too, helping Pennsylvania residents cut down on their own gasoline bills and improving the quality of the air that we all breathe.

These efforts are worthwhile, but they aren’t enough. Whether you live in an urban hub or down a rural lane, increased air pollution due to vehicles is going to affect you. The EPA’s plan to reduce fuel-efficiency standards and drive up air pollution is going to leave a mark on your lungs and your wallet. What we need now from the EPA is strong leadership and innovation, rather than slamming the brakes on progress.

This post originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette​

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