The Dirty Scheme to Make Americans Buy More Gasoline
By Rhea Suh
It's not often that an industry chieftain brags to investors about picking the pockets of American families with help from the White House.
That's what happened, though, after Big Oil schemed with the Trump administration last summer to ensure higher gasoline consumption—to the tune of $16 billion a year—and more climate-disrupting carbon pollution from our cars, vans and pickup trucks.
An important investigative story by the New York Times lays bare this craven sellout of the public interest and details the hammerlock the oil industry has on domestic policy under President Trump. The article details how the Trump administration bowed to the major oil companies to try and gut commonsense rules that were already saving consumers billions of dollars a year at the pump and helping clean up our dirty tailpipe emissions.
In a cynical confession, Gary Heminger, chairman of Marathon Petroleum, boasted to analysts last week that weakening the clean car rules would boost gasoline sales by up to 16.8 million gallons a day.
At $2.65 a gallon, the national November average, that comes to $44.5 million a day, or more than $16 billion a year, money that American workers won't be able to spend on their families' needs because it will go, instead, to the oil industry. "However," Heminger warned investors, "you have another side who doesn't want to pivot away" from the fuel savings and pollution reductions the rules support. "So we have a lot of work to do to keep this momentum going."
That so-called "work" doesn't come cheap. In the national elections of 2016 and 2018, campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry totaled $176 million, with 87 cents of every dollar going to Trump's party.
It's paying off for the industry—at the country's expense.
In 2012, with the endorsement of the major automakers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Transportation teamed up on a pair of rules that cut tailpipe pollution from our cars, vans, SUVs and pickup trucks. The rules had the industry on track to double gas mileage by 2025, cutting the nation's oil consumption by a staggering 2.4 million barrels per day by 2030.
It's one of the most important steps we've taken, as a country, to protect future generations from the growing dangers of climate change. That's because our cars and light trucks account for about 17 percent of U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases contributing to the problem. Mile for mile, the 2012 rules cut the carbon footprint of driving in half.
The measures have supported a surge in manufacturing jobs, with nearly 300,000 Americans hard at work helping us to get more miles from a gallon of gas or moving us closer to the electric cars and hybrid vehicles of the future. Some 70,000 of those jobs are in Michigan alone, where more than 224 facilities are turning out materials or components to help make our cars run cleaner and more efficiently.
Last August, though, the Trump administration proposed gutting the rules, throwing national support for clean car progress into reverse. Automakers wanted flexibility in meeting the clean car standards. On balance, though, the rules complemented tens of billions of dollars in industry investment in a new generation of automobiles.
So it was something of a mystery as to why the administration turned away from standards that save our families billions of dollars a year at the pump, fight the central environmental challenge of our time, and help create scores of thousands of well-paying jobs. The Times article provides the answer: it's not the automakers but, rather, the oil companies that see the road ahead through the rearview mirror.
We're not going to stand by and watch Donald Trump put our future at risk to pump up oil profits. We're fighting this proposal. We'll make our case in court, if necessary, and we've joined other groups in calling on the EPA and the Transportation Department to come clean about how the administration sold out our environment and our pocketbooks in its fealty to fossil fuels.
As my NRDC colleague Luke Tonachel testified in a federal hearing on the proposed changes last September, "We Americans pay taxes so that the government will serve and protect us, not Big Oil."
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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