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Maryland must stand with California on clean cars and clean air

It comes as no surprise that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under Scott Pruitt is moving to weaken fuel economy standards in cars and trucks. The agency’s disinterest in public health, its intolerance of climate change science and its blind commitment to rolling back regulations promulgated under President Barack Obama is a pattern too well established to have believed reason and the public interest might prevail. But this time, Mr. Pruitt’s ambitions to deregulate have a substantial obstacle — California’s commitment to clean car standards as well of that of the 12 states that follow its lead.

Maryland happens to be one of those states along with its neighbors Delaware, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. Should the EPA follow through on its announcement Monday that it intends to roll back fuel efficiency standards, the agency is headed for court. The clean car rules were developed six years ago in cooperation with the automotive industry and the need for those protections has only become more evident over time. Maryland and the other states should not either — even if the EPA threatens to suspend the waiver that allows states to adopt tougher standards. The agency in the time of President Donald Trump has lost all credibility in matters of environmental science; how could Americans possibly believe the Trump administration with its history of climate change denial has given the matter a thoughtful review?

Once again, President Trump and Maryland’s Republican governor are parting ways over policy. Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles signed a letter protesting the EPA action Monday along with his counterparts from Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington state calling on Mr. Pruitt to at least respect the right of California to set its own standards. The U.S. Climate Alliance, the bipartisan coalition of 16 states in support of the Paris climate agreement that Gov. Larry Hogan agreed to join earlier this year, also issued a statement protesting the move.

Putting more gas-guzzling vehicles on the road may temporarily hold down the price of certain larger vehicles — and that is a major part of the Trump administration’s pitch — but the harm such a policy would do is substantial. For all the focus on coal-fired power plants in recent years, the transportation sector is the single greatest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Cars and light-duty trucks account for more than 60 percent of it. As it stands right now, the federal government was on track to raise average fuel economy to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

Mr. Pruitt is correct about one thing: There really should be one standard. The problem is that it’s California, not the EPA, that ought to set it. Time and time again, Mr. Pruitt has demonstrated he’s simply not up to the task of protecting the health and welfare of the American people. Stricter CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards have the benefit of not only reducing carbon dioxide but other noxious pollutants as well. The higher fuel economy is also one of the most effective ways the nation can truly become energy independent, as Mr. Trump claims to want, as the tougher standards are expected to reduce oil consumption by 12 billion barrels over the lifetime of cars affected by the regulations. That’s the equivalent of nearly two years of U.S. consumption of all petroleum products.

The EPA administrator has not only denied man-made climate change, he’s openly spoken of the potential benefits of global warming. That requires conveniently ignoring rising sea levels and coastal flooding, wildfires and hurricanes, heat waves and adverse health impacts, extreme weather and flooding, disruptions to the food supply, loss of wildlife and habitat and the social and political upheaval that these disruptions will generate. But it fits a patterns of science aversion and distrust. Mr. Pruitt recently announced his agency’s rejection of “secret science” to develop regulations. That may sound like an embrace of transparency, but it actually means disregarding valuable peer-reviewed studies where the public can’t access the full data (as often happens when patient privacy is involved). Add to that Mr. Pruitt’s history as a captive of the oil and gas industry from his days as Oklahoma’s attorney general and his suspect personal ethics (like the revelation of his $50 rental bedroom on Capitol Hill, made possible by a top energy lobbyist) and it would be foolish to put much faith in his regulatory leadership.

This risk posed to a coastal state like Maryland by climate change is especially worrisome. Mr. Trump should understand that a great number of Americans — a lot of them Republicans — expect the U.S. to address the climate threat and to at least keep pace in clean vehicle technology with China and the European Union. The U.S. is doing itself no favors by abandoning its leadership role on the climate, not economically and not politically. Car manufacturers ought to recognize the potential consumer and voter backlash that’s coming as well — perhaps as early as the mid-term elections.

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