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Tina Casey headshot

It's Time for Big Agriculture to Stand Up for Fuel Economy

By Tina Casey

When the Trump administration proposed rolling back Obama-era fuel economy standards for the auto industry, the opposition was nearly universal -- except, of course, on the part of the oil industry. In the latest development, two new studies indicate that agriculture stakeholders will feel the impacts if the new fuel economy proposal goes into effect.

Climate change and fuel economy

For those of you new to the fuel economy topic, U.S. automakers have to abide by CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards set by the federal government.

The initial force behind the CAFE standards was the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, which touched off a supply crisis in the U.S. In response, Congress passed the 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act.

Unfortunately, consumption continued to creep upwards after the 1970's. Domestic fuel supply concerns once again prompted Congress to take more action. Higher fuel economy standards were finally imposed in 2007 under the Energy Independence and Security Act.

When President Obama took office in 2009, climate change entered the picture. The Union of Concerned Scientists sums up the merger of air pollution standards with fuel economy goals:

In 2009, a historic agreement between the Federal Government, state regulators, and the auto industry established a national program to implement these first meaningful fuel efficiency improvements in over 30 years and the first-ever global warming pollution standards for light-duty vehicles.

The agreement called for coordination between Clean Air Act standards and fuel economy standards, easing the way for the auto industry to create fleets that comply with both.

The agreement also meant that EPA and the California Air Resources Board would join the National Highway Transportation Safety Agency to implement fuel economy standards.

In addition to efficiency improvements, the first phase of the new program called for a 23 percent improvement in pollution by 2016. Further improvements were slated to occur under the second phase, from 2017 to 2025.

Climate change and the new MIT study

When Trump took office in 2017 he vowed to roll back the standards. Last summer, the process went into motion.

On August 2, NHTSA announced its intention to freeze CAFE and tailpipe pollution standards at 2020 levels, under a proposal called the SAFE Vehicles Rule.

SAFE stands for "Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient." In accord with the emphasis on safety, NHTSA cited this reasoning:

. . . If adopted, the proposed rule’s preferred alternative would save more than $500 billion in societal costs and reduce highway fatalities by 12,700 lives (over the lifetimes of vehicles through model year 2029).

That brings us to the first of those two studies. Last week, MIT Sloan School of Management Professor Christopher Knittel and colleagues from other top schools threw cold water on the whole idea that the fuel economy rollback would save lives or anything else, for that matter.

In an article published in the journal Science, they analyzed the Trump administration cost-benefit study underpinning the proposal. They found crippling flaws in the assertion that continuing the Obama standards would result in more traffic deaths and more cars on the road. They also found no evidence for the assertion that the Obama standards would result in increased costs that outweigh societal benefits.

As for those societal benefits, that's where fuel economy intersects with climate change and the interests of the global agricultural community.

By rejecting the Obama-era emphasis on global greenhouse gas emissions within the fuel economy space, the Trump administration in effect throws the agricultural community under the bus.

Energy Manager Today highlights an observation from Knittel, which teases out the geopolitical as well as environmental impacts:

The 2018 study eliminates the prior study’s global focus, targeting only the U.S. “This is a major difference that reduces the social cost of carbon from $48 per ton globally to a cost of only $7 per ton in the U.S. By ignoring the rest of the world, the study reduces the benefits of fuel standards from $27.8 billion in 2016 to $4.3 billion in 2018, effectively announcing to the world that the US. does not care about climate impacts outside of its borders, even those faced by our strongest allies,” [Knittel] notes.

Agriculture and fuel economy

The impact of global warming on farmers is all too evident right here in the US. In 2013 the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued this warning:
Effects will vary among annual and perennial crops, and regions of the United States; however, all production systems will be affected to some degree by climate change. Agricultural systems depend upon reliable water sources, and the pattern and potential magnitude of precipitation changes is not well understood, thus adding considerable uncertainty to assessment efforts.

One of those climate change impacts is a strange phenomenon in which rainfall increases, and yet rivers -- a key source of irrigation for farmers -- are drying up.

That's where the second study comes in.

Billed as "the most exhaustive global analysis of rainfall and rivers," the study included data from 43,000 rainfall stations and 5,300 river monitoring sites in 160 countries, under the auspices of Australia's University of New South Wales in Sydney.

Based on that data, the researchers concluded that the culprit is a pattern of storm events following dry conditions. That pattern results in more water being captured in soil rather than running off to rivers.

The cycle is exacerbated as farmers seek more water to irrigate dryer soil, as explained by head researcher Ashish Sharma :

"We believe the cause is the drying of soils in our catchments. Where once these were moist before a storm event - allowing excess rainfall to run-off into rivers - they are now drier and soak up more of the rain, so less water makes it as flow.

"Less water into our rivers means less water for cities and farms. And drier soils means farmers need more water to grow the same crops. Worse, this pattern is repeated all over the world, assuming serious proportions in places that were already dry. It is extremely concerning . . ."

Here in the U.S., the Colorado River -- which feeds breadbasket states in the southwest -- is drying up to the point where federal monitors may need to impose mandatory restrictions.

The Colorado River is already under stress due to population growth, fossil fuel extraction and farming.

With new evidence that climate change is contributing to stress on agricultural water resources, farmers have all the more reason to step up and advocate for climate action, including stricter fuel economy standards.

Image credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey