As New York’s attorney general, Mr. Schneiderman used the same playbook that raised the profiles of his predecessors. Whoever fills the job next will probably do the same thing.
IBRA, Oman — In the arid vastness of this corner of the Arabian Peninsula, out where goats and the occasional camel roam, rocks form the backdrop practically every way you look.
But the stark outcrops and craggy ridges are more than just scenery. Some of these rocks are hard at work, naturally reacting with carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turning it into stone.
Veins of white carbonate minerals run through slabs of dark rock like fat marbling a steak. Carbonate surrounds pebbles and cobbles, turning ordinary gravel into natural mosaics.
Even pooled spring water that has bubbled up through the rocks reacts with CO2 to produce an ice-like crust of carbonate that, if broken, re-forms within days.
Scientists say that if this natural process, called carbon mineralization, could be harnessed, accelerated and applied inexpensively on a huge scale — admittedly some very big “ifs” — it could help fight climate change. Rocks could remove some of the billions of tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide that humans have pumped into the air since the beginning of the Industrial Age.
And by turning that CO2 into stone, the rocks in Oman — or in a number of other places around the world that have similar geological formations — would ensure that the gas stayed out of the atmosphere forever.
“Solid carbonate minerals aren’t going anyplace,” said Peter B. Kelemen, a geologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who has been studying the rocks here for more than two decades.
A Breathing Landscape
Gulf of Oman
Gulf of Oman
Gulf of Oman
Gulf of Oman
Gulf of Oman
By The New York Times
Capturing and storing carbon dioxide, the most prevalent greenhouse gas, is drawing increased interest. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that deploying such technology is essential to efforts to rein in global warming. But the idea has barely caught on: There are fewer than 20 large-scale projects in operation around the world, and they remove CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels at power plants or from other industrial processes and store it as gas underground.
What Dr. Kelemen and others have in mind is removing carbon dioxide that is already in the air, to halt or reverse the gradual increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration. Direct-air capture, as it is known, is sometimes described as a form of geoengineering — deliberate manipulation of the climate — although that term is more often reserved for the idea of reducing warming by reflecting more sunlight away from the earth.
Although many researchers dismiss what direct-air capture as logistically or economically impractical, especially given the billions of tons of gas that would have to be removed to have an impact, some say it may have to be considered if other efforts to counter global warming are ineffective.
A few researchers and companies have built machines that can pull CO2out of the air, in relatively small quantities, but adapting and enhancing natural capture processes using rocks is less developed.
“This one still feels like the most nascent piece of the conversation,” said Noah Deich, executive director of the Center for Carbon Removal, a research organization in Berkeley, Calif. “You see these sparks, but I don’t see anything catching fire yet.”
Dr. Kelemen is one of a relative handful of researchers around the world who are studying the idea. At a geothermal power plant in Iceland, after several years of experimentation, an energy company is currently injecting modest amounts of carbon dioxide into volcanic rock, where it becomes mineralized. Dutch researchers have suggested spreading a kind of crushed rock along coastlines to capture CO2. And scientists in Canada and South Africa are studying ways to use mine wastes, called tailings, to do the same thing.
“It’s clear that we’re going to have to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” said Roger Aines, who leads the development of carbon management technologies at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and has worked with Dr. Kelemen and others. “And we’re going to have to do it on a gigaton scale.”
If billions of tons of CO2 are to be turned to stone, there are few places in the world more suitable than Oman, a sultanate with a population of 4 million and an economy based on oil and, increasingly, tourism.
The carbon-capturing formations here, consisting largely of a rock called peridotite, are in a slice of oceanic crust and the mantle layer below it that was thrust up on land by tectonic forces nearly 100 million years ago. Erosion has resulted in a patchy zone about 200 miles long, up to 25 miles wide and several miles thick in the northern part of the country, including here in the outskirts of Ibra, a dusty inland city of 50,000. Even the bustling capital, Muscat, on the Gulf of Oman, has a pocket of peridotite practically overlooking Sultan Qaboos bin Said’s palace.
Peridotite normally is miles below the earth’s surface. When the rocks are exposed to air or water as they are here, Dr. Kelemen said, they are like a giant battery with a lot of chemical potential. “They’re really, really far from equilibrium with the atmosphere and surface water,” he said.
The rocks are so extensive, Dr. Kelemen said, that if it was somehow possible to fully use them they could store hundreds of years of CO2 emissions. More realistically, he said, Oman could store at least a billion tons of CO2 annually. (Current yearly worldwide emissions are close to 40 billion tons.)
While the formations here are special, they are not unique. Similar though smaller ones are found in Northern California, Papua New Guinea and Albania, among other places.
Dr. Kelemen first came to Oman in the 1990s, as the thrust-up rocks were one of the best sites in the world to study what was then his area of research, the formation and structure of the earth’s crust. He’d noticed the carbonate veins but thought they must be millions of years old.
“There was a feeling that carbon mineralization was really slow and not worth thinking about,” he said.
But in 2007, he had some of the carbonate dated. Almost all of it was less than 50,000 years old, suggesting that the mineralization process was actually much faster.
“So then I said, O.K., this is pretty cool,” Dr. Kelemen said.
Since then, in addition to continuing his crust research, he has spent much time studying the prospects for harnessing the mineralization process — among other things, learning about the water chemistry, which changes as it flows through the rocks, and measuring the actual uptake of CO2 from the air in certain spots.
For much of this decade he has also led a multinational effort to drill boreholes in the rock, a $4 million project that is only partly related to carbon capture. In March the drilling was nearing completion, with scientists and technicians sending instruments down the holes, which are up to 1,300 feet deep, to better characterize the rock layers.
The rocks here may be capable of capturing a lot of carbon dioxide, but the challenge is doing it much faster than nature, in huge amounts and at low enough cost to make it more than a pipe dream. Dr. Kelemen and his colleagues, including Juerg Matter, a researcher from the University of Southampton in England who was involved in the Icelandic project, have some ideas.
One possibility, Dr. Kelemen said, would be to drill pairs of wells and pump water with dissolved CO2 into one of them. As the water traveled through the rock formation carbonate would form; when it reached the other well the water, now depleted of CO2, would be pumped out. The process could be repeated over and over.
There is a lot that is unknown about such an approach, however. For one thing, while pumping water deep into the earth, where temperatures and pressures are higher, could make the process of mineralization go tens of thousands of times faster, so much carbonate might form that the water flow would stop. “You might clog everything up, and it would all come to a screeching halt,” Dr. Kelemen said.
Experiments and eventually pilot projects are needed to better understand and optimize this process and others, Dr. Kelemen said, but so far Omani officials have been reluctant to grant the necessary permits. The researchers may need to go elsewhere, like California, where the rocks are less accessible but the state government has set ambitious targets for reducing emissions and is open to new ways to meet them.
Dr. Kelemen and Dr. Aines have had preliminary discussions with California officials about the possibility of experimenting there. “We would certainly be a willing and eager partner to help them with it,” said David Bunn, director of the State Department of Conservation.
Perhaps the simplest way to use rocks to capture carbon dioxide would be to quarry large amounts of them, grind them into fine particles and spread them out to expose them to the air. The material could be turned over from time to time to expose fresh surfaces, or perhaps air with a higher CO2 concentration could be pumped into it to speed up the process.
But a quarrying and grinding operation of the scale required would be hugely expensive, scar the landscape and produce enormous CO2 emissions of its own. So a few researchers are asking, Why not use rocks that have already been quarried and ground up for other purposes?
Such rocks are found in large amounts at mines around the world, as waste tailings. Platinum, nickel and diamonds, in particular, are mined from rock that has a lot of carbon-mineralization potential.
Gregory Dipple, a researcher at the University of British Columbia who has been studying mine tailings for more than a decade, said early on he found evidence that waste rock was forming carbonate without any human intervention. “It was clear it was taking CO2 from the air,” he said.
Dr. Dipple is now working with several mining companies and studying ways to improve upon the natural process. The goal would be to capture at least enough CO2 to fully offset a mine’s carbon emissions, which typically come from trucks and on-site power generation.
Evelyn Mervine, who has worked with Dr. Dipple and Dr. Kelemen and now works for De Beers, the world’s largest diamond company, is studying a similar approach and hopes by next year to conduct trials at one or more of the company’s mines.
“We don’t think from a scientific perspective it would be that difficult or expensive — we can be carbon-neutral,” she said. “And in the mining industry that is extraordinary.”
“Relative to the global problem, it’s really just a drop in the bucket,” Dr. Mervine said. “But it sets a really good precedent.”
Larry Thompson, a former U.S. deputy attorney general, said the carmaker had not held wrongdoers accountable or been serious enough about change.
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It may have been difficult to identify these states because the scale of inundation is so drastic. But 16 other states and the nation’s capital, shown below, would also be severely damaged. Two states that are now landlocked, Arkansas and Vermont, would become, in effect, coastal.
For nearly 20 years, Williams worked as a contractor, building houses in Kansas City. But work dried up after the financial crisis hit in 2007. Williams decided to return to the family farm near Waverly, an area of gently rolling plains, and give farming a try. His family had farmed some when he was a teenager before leasing the land to tenants for years, and he knew it was difficult to make ends meet. But he was inspired by an article about a North Dakota rancher and farmer named Gabe Brown, who claimed to have developed, through trial and error, a more efficient and cost-effective way to farm.
The gist of Brown’s argument was that if you focus on the health of the soil and not on yield, eventually you come out ahead, not necessarily because you grow more corn or wheat per acre but because the reduction in spending on fertilizer and other inputs lets you produce each bushel of grain more cheaply. Williams decided to follow Brown’s prescription. “If after three years, I’m bankrupt, I’ll admit it was a bad joke,” Williams remembers thinking.
Seven years later, his gamble seems to have paid off. He started with 60 acres, now farms about 2,000 and, when I visited last fall, had just purchased an additional 200. In one of his fields, we walked down a lane he had mowed through his warm-weather cover crops — plants grown not to be harvested, but to enrich the soil — which towered over us, reaching perhaps eight feet. They included sorghum, a canelike grass with red-tinted tassels spilling from the tops, mung beans and green-topped daikon radishes low to the ground. Each plant was meant to benefit the earth in a different way. The long radishes broke it up and drew nutrients toward the surface; tall grasses like sorghum produced numerous fine rootlets, adding organic material to the land; legumes harbored bacteria that put nitrogen into the soil. His 120-strong herd of British white cattle — he introduced livestock in 2013 — would eventually eat through the field, turning the plants into cow patties and enriching the soil further. Then he would plant his cash crops. “Had I not found this way to farm,” he told me, “we would not be farming.”
A mat of dead vegetation — from cover crops, cash-crop residue and dung — covered Williams’s fields. The mulch, along with his cover crops, inhibited weeds from becoming established, a major concern for conventional farmers, because so many weeds have evolved resistance to herbicides. “I don’t lie awake at night wondering how I’m going to kill weeds,” Williams said.
Williams doesn’t till his fields. By minimizing soil disturbance, no-till farming prevents erosion, helps retain moisture and leaves the soil ecosystem — worms, fungi, roots and more — mostly intact. At one of his soybean fields, Williams showed me how this translated to soil with “structure.” “See how that crumbles into a cottage-cheese look?” he said, massaging a fistful of earth. Small clods fell through his fingers. “That’s what you want.” Worm holes riddled the dirt, giving it a spongelike quality that was critical, he said, for absorbing rain and preventing runoff. Weather patterns seemed to be changing, he noted. Rain used to arrive in numerous light storms. Now fewer storms came, but they were more intense. “We have to be able to capture rain and store it,” he said.
By focusing on soil health, Williams says he has reduced his use of herbicides by 75 percent and fertilizers by 45 percent. He doesn’t use pesticides — he relies instead on beneficial insects for pest control — and he saves money by not buying expensive genetically modified, herbicide-resistant seed. He estimates that he produces a bushel of soybeans for about 20 percent less than his conventionally farming neighbors. Last fall, he claims, his yields ranked among the highest in the county. While doing all this, he has so far raised the amount of soil organic matter, a rough predictor of soil carbon concentrations, from around 2 percent to 3.5 percent in some fields. Gabe Brown, for his part, says he has more than tripled his soil carbon since the 1990s. And an official with the U.S.D.A.’s Agricultural Research Service confirmed to me that the amount of carbon in Brown’s soil — what his farming has pulled from the atmosphere — was between two and three times as high as it was in his neighbors’ land.
The successes of Brown and Williams suggest that farmers can increase carbon in the soil while actually reducing their overall expenses. This could be vital, because in order for carbon farming to have an impact on the climate, as much land as possible, including both crop- and rangeland, will have to be included in the effort.
Critics of regenerative agriculture say that it can’t be adopted broadly and intensively enough to matter — or that if it can, the prices of commodities might be affected unfavorably. Mark Bradford, a professor of soils and ecosystem ecology at Yale, questions what he sees as a quasi-religious belief in the benefits of soil carbon. The recommendation makes sense intuitively, he told me. But the extent to which carbon increases crop yield hasn’t been quantified, making it somewhat “faith-based.”
William Schlesinger, an emeritus soil scientist at Duke, points out that “regenerative” practices might inadvertently cause emissions to rise elsewhere. If you stop tilling to increase soil carbon, for example, but use more herbicides because you have more weeds, then you probably haven’t changed your overall emissions profile, he says. He thinks the climate-mitigation potential of carbon farming has been greatly oversold.
Williams has reduced his herbicide use, not increased it, but Schlesinger’s broader point — about the need for a careful overall accounting of greenhouse gases — is important. Williams, Brown and others like them aren’t focused on climate change; no one really knows if the carbon they put in the ground more than offsets the methane produced by their cows, for example. What they do demonstrate is that augmenting soil carbon while farming is not only possible, but also beneficial, even in a business sense. And that makes the prospect of rolling out these practices on a larger scale much easier to imagine.
Credit Jonno Rattman for The New York Times
The carbon-farming idea is gathering momentum at a time when national climate policy is backsliding. The Trump administration has reversed various Obama-era regulations meant to combat or adapt to climate change, including the Clean Power Plan, which required power plants to reduce their carbon emissions, and a rule instructing the federal government to consider sea-level rise and other effects of a changing climate when building new roads, bridges and other infrastructure.
In the absence of federal leadership on climate — and as emissions continue to rise globally, shrinking the time available to forestall worst-case outcomes — state and local governments (as well as nonprofits) have begun to look into carbon farming. Last year, Hawaii passed legislation meant to keep it aligned with the Paris agreement, which President Trump has said he will abandon; the state has also created a task force to research carbon farming. The New York state assemblywoman Didi Barrett introduced legislation that would make tax credits available to farmers who increase soil carbon, presumably through methods like those employed by Darin Williams and Gabe Brown. A bill to educate farmers about soil has been proposed in Massachusetts. And in Maryland, legislation focused on soil health passed in 2017. Other carbon-farming projects are in the works in Colorado, Arizona and Montana.
But it is California, already in the vanguard on climate-mitigation efforts, that has led the way on carbon farming. By 2050, the state aims to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to 20 percent of what they were in 1990. Nearly half its 58 counties have farmers and ranchers at various stages of developing and implementing carbon-farming plans. San Francisco, which already has the largest urban composting program in the country, hopes to become a model carbon-farming metropolis. Cities don’t have much room to plant trees or undertake other practices that remove carbon from the atmosphere, says Deborah Raphael, the director of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment. But they can certainly produce plenty of compost. “If we can show other cities how doable it is to get green waste out of landfills, we can prove the concept,” Raphael told me. “We like to say that San Francisco rehearses the future.”
Many of California’s carbon-farming efforts owe a debt to Wick, Creque and Silver. In 2008, they founded the Marin Carbon Project, a consortium of ranchers, scientists and land managers. The goal is to develop science-based carbon-farming practices and to help establish the incentives needed to encourage California farmers to adopt them. Silver continues to publish her findings in respected journals. Creque also started a nonprofit, the Carbon Cycle Institute, that assists farmers and ranchers in making carbon-farming plans.
Wick has thrown himself into the policy realm, hiring a lobbyist in Sacramento to push a carbon-farming agenda. (In 2014, he even testified before Congress, outlining the project’s discoveries and explaining how compost could increase soil carbon on public lands. He deliberately mentioned “climate” only once.) Educating policymakers matters because, as Torri Estrada, executive director of the Carbon Cycle Institute, points out, carbon-mitigation efforts that focus on agriculture can be much cheaper per ton of carbon avoided than the flashier energy-efficiency and renewable-energy projects that usually get most of the attention. The major obstacle to their implementation, he says, is that government officials don’t understand or know about them.
California’s Healthy Soils Initiative, which Wick helped shape, explicitly enlists agriculture in the fight against climate change. In principle, that means this carbon farmers can receive money from the state’s climate-mitigation funds not just for compost but also for 34 other soil-improving practices already approved by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. That’s important because the compost needed to cover just a few acres can cost thousands of dollars. Wick has also tried to tap federal funding. Once N.R.C.S. scientists vet Silver’s work, a compost amendment could become the service’s 35th recommendation. As a result, farm bill money, which farmers receive to subsidize food production, could help finance carbon farming done according to Wick’s protocol — not to fight climate change explicitly (which is now seen as politicized), but to bolster the health of soil (which isn’t).
As a carbon-farming tool, compost bears some notable advantages — namely, it works both preventively and correctively. Composting prevents emissions from the starter material — manure, food scraps — that, if allowed to decompose, might emit potent greenhouse gases. (About one-fifth of United States methane emissions comes from food and other organic material decomposing in dumps.) By enhancing plant growth, it also aids in removing carbon from the atmosphere, a corrective process. And because the carbon in nearly all organic material was originally pulled from the atmosphere during photosynthesis, compost that enters the soil represents the storage of carbon removed from the air earlier — the grass eaten by cows that became manure, or the trees that became wood chips — and at a different location. That, too, is corrective.
Calla Rose Ostrander, Wick’s right-hand person at the Marin Carbon Project, told me that the project’s greater goal is to completely reframe how we think about waste, to see it as more than a nuisance — to recognize it as a resource, a tool that can help us garden our way out of the climate problem. Before the modern era, farmers had no choice but to return human and animal waste to the fields. (Wick is looking into the possibility of composting human waste as well; the end product is called humanure.) In a sense, Wick and Ostrander seek to resurrect these ancient practices and, with the aid of modern science, to close the loop among livestock, plants, air and soil — and between cities and the agricultural land that feeds them.
What seems to most impress experts about the Marin Carbon Project is the quality of Silver’s research. Eric Toensmeier, the author of “The Carbon Farming Solution” and a lecturer at Yale, says that the project figured out a new way to increase carbon storage on the semiarid grasslands that cover so much of the world. Jason Weller, the former head of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, told me that “the level of science investment is out of the ordinary, or extraordinary, for a group that is really self-started.” Weller added that the agency’s scientists still needed to vet the research, which they are in the midst of doing. In late 2016 the agency oversaw the application of compost to different California regions — inland, Southern, Northern — to see if land in various conditions would, like Wick’s ranch, suck up atmospheric carbon.
But the group also has critics. “I’m very skeptical of their results and their claims,” William Horwath, a soil scientist at the University of California, Davis, told me. He wants to see Silver’s experiments replicated. This is the project’s major weakness: Its big idea is based almost entirely on extrapolation from a few acres in California. At this point, it’s impossible to say whether compost can cause land to become a carbon sponge in all climates and conditions, and for how long treated grassland will continue to take in and retain its carbon.
Cows, a flash point in any discussion about climate change, may also present problems. Ruminants burp methane, and while carbon farming does not require their presence, some argue that merely accepting them on the land undermines the goal of reaching a carbon-neutral or -negative future. Livestock emissions account for almost half the heat-trapping gases associated with agriculture, so an obvious way to reduce emissions is to decrease the number of cows on the planet. Instead of dumping compost on rangeland, says Ian Monroe, a lecturer on energy and climate at Stanford University, why not allow forests cleared for pasture to regrow, and change people’s eating habits so they include less meat?
Criticism is directed at compost too. The stuff requires energy to produce; huge machines are required to shred the material and keep it aerated. And it’s unclear if compost, like synthetic fertilizer, can cause nitrogen pollution when put on the land, or how much greenhouse gas composting itself generates. (As long as compost mounds are regularly aerated to prevent low-oxygen conditions, composting is thought to produce few emissions.)
Organic material from municipal sources can contain bits of plastic and glass, which no one wants on their fields. Manure might carry seeds of invasive plants. (Silver has seen no evidence of this.) Spreading compost on public rangeland could disrupt plant communities, squeezing out species adapted to conditions of scarcity. And in any carbon-farming scheme, who will monitor and verify that far-flung stretches of land are really absorbing and storing the carbon as they’re supposed to?
Horwath considers the amount of compost used in Silver’s research — about 10 times the usual application, he estimates — to be unrealistically high for practical use. “It seems an inordinately large amount to apply to any system,” he told me. And given what he sees as the many unknowns in Silver’s research, that compost would be put to better use on cropland where, he says, scientists know with greater certainty that it could improve water retention and the efficiency of fertilizer.
Then there’s the problem of supply. Demand for San Francisco’s compost, which mostly goes to vineyards in California’s wine country, already outstrips what’s available. But Wick thinks more starter material shouldn’t be hard to find: Americans throw out between 30 and 40 percent of all the food they buy, sending it to landfills where it rots and generates greenhouse gases. Silver has calculated that there’s enough organic waste material in California to treat one-quarter of its rangeland every few decades.
Still, given the energy requirements, the logistical headaches and the cost, skeptics question whether spreading compost across extensive portions of the world’s surface — including conflict zones in the Sahel or Central Asia — is really feasible. Even if it is, soils probably can’t soak up carbon indefinitely. If they have a saturation point, increases in carbon will eventually stop when that moment is reached. And because soil degradation can cause the release of whatever carbon it holds, treated lands would have to be well cared for in perpetuity.
On a cool autumn day at Wick and Rathmann’s ranch house, Wick fielded phone calls while I wandered around the cluttered, semicircular room that served as his office and meeting space. A whiteboard displayed scribbles from a presentation on the carbon cycle. Coils of warmly hued yarn hung from the doorways. They came via a local nonprofit dedicated to climate-friendly ranching practices called Fibershed. And draped over a chair was a T-shirt bearing what might as well have been Wick’s battle cry: “seq-C,” it read, punny shorthand for “sequester carbon.” Under that it read, “Doing it in the dirt.”
Down the road, he showed me a composting facility that Creque dreamed up initially. He and Wick hoped it would serve as a self-sustaining prototype. “Anything that has ever been alive can be composted,” he told me, surveying the 10-foot-tall piles of chicken droppings and feathers, horse bedding (manure and straw) and shredded trees. A tractor mixed woody refuse with animal waste — to get the composting process started requires the right mix of carbon- and nitrogen-rich materials. (That’s why some backyard composters recommend urinating on the pile to kick things off: Urine is rich in nitrogen.)
On Monday, the Trump administration formally declared that Obama-era fuel economy rules for automobiles were too strict and would likely be weakened in the months ahead.
So how strict are the current rules? While the Obama-era standards for cars and light trucks were on pace to become some of the most aggressive in the world by 2025, they were still less stringent than those set by the European Union, according to an analysis by the International Center on Clean Transportation, which compared standards for different countries.
Fuel Economy Standards for Passenger Cars
Normalized to U.S. Corporate Average Fuel Economy test cycles
By The New York Times | Source: The International Council on Clean Transportation
Several other countries have modeled their vehicle standards after those in the United States, so a rollback by the Environmental Protection Agency could potentially affect standards across the globe.
In 2012, the Obama administration worked with California to set greenhouse gas and efficiency standards for transportation that aimed to roughly double the average fleetwide fuel economy of new cars, S.U.V.s and light trucks by 2025.
If automakers complied with the rules solely by improving the fuel economy of their engines, new cars and light trucks on the road would average more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025 (the charts here break out standards for cars and light trucks separately). But automakers in the United States have some flexibility in meeting these standards. They can, for instance, get credit for using refrigerants in vehicle air-conditioning units that contribute less to global warming, or get credit for selling more electric vehicles.
Once those credits and testing procedures are factored in, analysts expected that new cars and light trucks sold in the United States would have averaged about 36 miles per gallon on the road by 2025 under the Obama-era rules, up from about 24.7 miles per gallon in 2016. Automakers like Tesla that sold electric vehicles also would have benefited from the credit system.
The Obama-era rules were also footprint-based, which means that larger S.U.V.s and light trucks face less stringent standards than smaller passenger cars do — as is true in most countries.
Fuel Economy Standards for Light Trucks
Normalized to U.S. Corporate Average Fuel Economy test cycles
Canada and the United States define four-wheel drive SUVs and passenger vans as light trucks; other countries count them in the passenger car category. By The New York Times | Source: The International Council on Clean Transportation
In recent years, as gasoline prices have fallen, more Americans have been opting to buy bigger cars and S.U.V.s. That trend has blunted the fuel savings originally projected under the Obama-era rules. Currently, S.U.V.s and light trucks make up a far larger proportion of new vehicle sales in the United States than they do in Europe:
Light Trucks Are a Bigger Share of the American Market
Market share of passenger cars and light trucks in 2016
Light trucks defined by United States standards. By The New York Times | Source: Analysis by the International Council on Clean Transportation
When President Trump came into office, automakers asked him to ease the fuel economy standards from 2022 to 2025, which had already been scheduled for a midterm review. The E.P.A. has said that it will start a new rule-making process to set “more appropriate” standards, but has not yet defined the rollback.
One option would be to relax the standards altogether in those years. Another would be to give automakers more leeway in the credits they can earn to comply with the rules. But any major changes could set up a showdown with California, which still has the ability to set its own standards.
If the Trump administration does significantly relax the fuel-economy rules, that could have ripple effects around the world. Canada, for instance, has harmonized its standards with the United States, while Mexico and Saudi Arabia essentially use the United States as a model for their own vehicle rules, albeit with a few years’ lag.
The United States has also become a leader in certain technologies to improve vehicle efficiency, such as using aluminum to reduce the weight of cars and trucks. Ford, for instance, has reduced the weight of its popular F-150 pickup truck by 700 pounds in recent years. If the United States greatly weakens its standards, some of that research could potentially slow down.
The European Union is currently considering a new round of even stricter standards that extend until 2030, while Australia has been exploring new vehicle rules modeled off the United States. “If the U.S. weakens its rules, automakers elsewhere could use that to lobby European and Australian regulators to be less strict,” said Anup Bandivadekar, a researcher at the International Council on Clean Transportation.
Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, announced a plan to weaken Obama-era greenhouse gas and fuel economy measures.
The country’s highest administrative court ruled that diesel vehicles may be banned from city streets as part of efforts to improve air quality.
“We are committed to righting the wrongs of the Obama administration by cleaning the regulatory slate,” Mr. Pruitt added in a statement Tuesday. “Any replacement rule will be done carefully, properly, and with humility, by listening to all those affected by the rule.”
Under the proposed repeal, the bureaucratic process of unraveling the Clean Power Plan could take months, and that is before any court challenges. Separately, the E.P.A. said it would ask the public for ideas about how to write a different, more tapered regulation. It gave no indication, however, of when it would do so or even whether it actually intended to create such a new rule. Moreover, soliciting public comment — in federal jargon, an “advance notice of proposed rule making” — is usually used by an agency to test ideas far in advance of even putting forward a proposed new regulation.
The list shows dozens of environmental policies that the Trump administration has targeted, often in an effort to ease burdens on the fossil fuel industry.
“I think they’re just dragging their feet,” said Vicki Arroyo, executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center at Georgetown Law School.
“They’ve had all this time to figure out what it is they would do if they were in charge, and they’ve been in charge since January, and they’ve known since November. So it’s literally been a year and they really don’t have anything to come up with other than kicking the can down the road?” she said. “They’re basically running out the clock.”
Business leaders from the Chamber of Commerce and leading utility companies have urged the E.P.A. in recent months to design a replacement for the Clean Power Plan. The groups, all opponents of the Obama-era plan, have argued that some type of regulation must exist to protect the E.P.A. from lawsuits. Even if the Trump administration succeeds in killing the Clean Power Plan, a 2009 agency determination known as the endangerment finding still compels the agency to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
Credit Saul Loeb/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
“When they finalize the repeal, there will certainly be a lawsuit. And separate and apart from that, if they don’t move forward with a replacement rule they will also have a lawsuit,” said Jeff Holmstead, a lawyer with Bracewell LLP, a firm representing energy companies that sued to overturn the Clean Power Plan.
Mr. Holmstead said challenging the E.P.A. will not be easy because there is no specific deadline for the agency to move forward with a replacement. But, he added, “I think there will be pressure from the business community for the E.P.A. to do something so there is a regulation in place.”
“We are concerned legally that not having a replacement regulation in place opens them up to liability,” said Ross Eisenberg, vice president of energy policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, which applauded Tuesday’s repeal. Mr. Eisenberg said he was not concerned that the agency appears to want some time to consider a replacement. But, he said, companies are eager to see that effort move forward.
We know. Global warming is daunting. So here’s a place to start: 17 often-asked questions with some straightforward answers.
Industry isn’t all on the same page. Mr. Murray said he didn’t believe a replacement was necessary. “Right now, there’s no urgency to do anything in my opinion,” he said.
Supporters and opponents alike point out that the E.P.A. may not have enough senior officials in place to design a new rule. President Trump only last week nominated a deputy administrator to the agency, and other key appointees are awaiting senate confirmation. Another factor is Mr. Pruitt himself, a vocal denier of the scientific consensus that human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are the main cause of climate change. Policy analysts said they did not believe Mr. Pruitt wanted his name attached to any greenhouse gas regulation, even a weak one.
“It’s very clear that this administration has no interest in seriously taking on climate change, be it in the power sector or other sources of emissions,” said David Konisky, an associate professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. “Delaying is the policy.”
But where some see cynical strategy, Mr. Pruitt’s supporters see considered reasoning. David T. Stevenson, policy director at the Center for Energy Competitiveness at the Caesar Rodney Institute in Delaware and a member of Mr. Trump’s E.P.A. transition team, said smart policy takes time. Designing and moving forward a replacement for the Clean Power Plan could take as long as two years, he said.
“If you do it right that’s how long it takes,” he said. “These kinds of rules were put in place for a reason, so you couldn’t just willy-nilly regulate the heck out of things.”
The company is joining other oil companies and corporate giants to endorse a plan from the Climate Leadership Council to tax fossil fuels and pay the dividends to taxpayers.