Abandoning vehicle emission limits could upend infrastructure plans

Atlanta drivers get a reminder about the pollution issues their commutes cause. (© Ron Sherman)

The current administration likes to claim that its attempts to roll back environmental safeguards are all done in the name of “regulatory certainty.” Time and again, however, we see that far from creating certainty, the administration is creating chaos.

A new proposal for vehicle emissions is no different. Clean car standards implemented in 2012 – in cooperation with U.S. automakers – would save almost 4 billion barrels of oil and cut billions of tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Trump administration officials, however, are proposing changes so vehicles will actually increase oil consumption and pollution over the long term.

While this nod to the auto and oil industries is clearly problematic because of the pollution, environmental damage, and harm to health it would cause, there are other unintended consequences if this rollback occurs. In the Southeast, as is true across the country, federal approvals for highway projects often rely on pollution assumptions based on the current, more stringent emissions standards. Should the administration rewrite those standards, many highway approvals will have to be reconsidered or will be subject to legal challenge.

Transportation projects, including new highways and highway improvements, are often subject to review under the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires public disclosure of a project’s environmental impacts. As part of this review, agencies must consider air quality and climate change impacts likely to result from a project.

Currently, because the emissions standards are scheduled to get stricter, agencies have contended in their reviews that even the increased traffic likely to result from a new highway won’t lead to an increase in pollution. If these standards are discarded, however, such assumptions will no longer be valid.

Across the Southeast, transportation agencies may be required to reevaluate and redo countless NEPA documents that incorporated projections based on the current standards. For example, the Complete 540 Toll Highway in North Carolina, the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel in Virginia and I-73 in South Carolina, all submitted permit requests using the 2012 standards.

SELC works on these and other projects across the region that rely on the current federal standards, so we recently shared our concerns with the relevant agencies. While there is no escape from the chaos and project delays that will occur if these rules go into effect, we have urged federal agencies to provide guidance on the topic to help alleviate such effects.

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