On Monday, the Environmental Protection Agency released new fuel economy standards that call for car companies to achieve a fleet average of 40 miles per gallon by 2026, up from the Trump administration’s proposal of 32 miles per gallon.* The Biden administration is celebrating this as a win for the climate and for people who will spend less money on gas.
While it is true that the new standards are better than the Trump ones, they keep a glaring loophole on the books that has been among the single greatest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the US over the last 30 years. While the details are a bit technical, the upshot is the Biden administration is presenting yet another policy as a victory in the fight against climate change when it is a marginal improvement at best and fails to correct one of the most glaring policy issues that has made climate change worse.
The loophole in question is the one that permits larger vehicles to pollute more, specifically by classifying vans, pickups, SUVs, and even some “crossovers,” depending on their characteristics, as “light duty trucks.” Not only does this category include obviously huge vehicles like the Chevy Suburban, Cadillac Escalade, or Ford F-150, but it also includes many smaller family vehicles like the Subaru Outback, Toyota RAV4, and Honda CR-V. Most absurdly, “medium duty passenger vehicles,” or MDPVs, are also categorized as “light trucks” for emissions purposes, even though they can weigh up to 10,000 pounds.
This loophole dates back to 1975, when such large vehicles barely existed. At the time, the rule made some sense, because nobody in their right mind would have wanted to drive such a massive, expensive, gas-guzzling vehicle just for the hell of it. Larger vehicles that have jobs to do like haul big, heavy things necessarily need to be bigger and will therefore have basic limitations on how good their fuel economy can be. Plus, climate change wasn’t even a known thing back then. As such, making different rules for those cars at the time wasn’t the craziest idea.
But over the ensuing decades, automakers realized they could make bigger vehicles, charge more for them, and follow these more lax standards. The SUV and pickup boom has meant billions in annual profits for automakers and more emissions from those vehicles that, by and large, do the same job as the family sedans and wagons of yesteryear. They also make roads less safe, as bigger vehicles are associated with higher rates of traffic fatalities for drivers, passengers, pedestrians, and cyclists.
The light duty loophole has long been recognized as a major incentive contributing to the supersizing of American vehicles. A 2009 study found that if vehicle weight, horsepower, and torque held steady at 1980 levels, passenger cars and light truck fuel economy would have increased by 50 percent by 2006 due to innovations and technological improvement. Instead, because vehicles got bigger and more powerful, fuel economy increased by only 15 percent over that same time. But the EPA’s own research misidentifies the cause of the gigantification of US vehicles as a “market shift” rather than a clear response to incentives set by its own agency.
Although the “light duty” classification once made some sense, it clearly no longer does. The majority of Americans drive light duty vehicles. These “light duty” vehicles are typically the most popular cars sold year in, year out. To highlight the absurdity, the actual definition no longer distinguishes between different vehicles, but only between different trims. Certain popular models like the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 don’t squarely fit in one category or another, depending on whether the specific trim in question has two-wheel drive or four wheel drive and other optional packages.
But the rule has tremendous implications for fuel economy standards car companies must hit. Currently, automakers must hit a fleet-wide target for cars of 181 grams of CO2 emitted per mile, but 261 for light trucks, a 36 percent difference. By 2026, cars must average out to 132 grams of CO2 per mile compared with 187 for light trucks, a 34 percent difference. Under Biden’s rules, car companies will continue to be able to pollute more with the vehicles they sell the most of.
In its fact sheet regarding the rule change, the EPA said it plans to also “initiate a future rulemaking to establish multi-pollutant emission standards for MY [model year] 2027 and beyond.” Whether that future rule addresses the light duty loophole—or whether it survives the climate policy seesawing that has defined the executive branch over the last decade—is still up in the air.
* The EPA sets the emissions rules by measuring grams of CO2 emitted per mile. It then converts that number into MPG-equivalencies so people can get some idea what this means for fuel economy. But it’s a messy conversion, as CO2 emissions and fuel economy are not the same thing; a car can get better fuel economy through other efficiencies than emitting less CO2. So, the EPA puts out two “MPG equivalent” numbers. One assumes emissions standards “are met exclusively by reducing tailpipe CO2.” For this rule, that number is 55 MPG and is the one most widely reported in other outlets. The other, lower number is “comparable to what a consumer would see on a fuel economy label and reflects real-world impacts on GHG emissions and fuel economy that are not captured by the compliance tests, including high speed driving, air conditioning usage, and cold temperatures.” We are choosing to use this number as it doesn’t set false expectations and is more realistic about how people actually use their cars.