Rolling Coal

Ryan Rafaty

Remove a truck’s catalytic converter, install a ‘smoke switch’ that tricks the engine into burning more diesel than it needs, and before you know it you’re rolling coal, purging impenetrable clouds of soot through your exhaust pipe on I-10 in Texas, enough to repel the prig in the Prius riding your tail. Those of us who consider deliberate pollution a vice can forget that there are others who not only don’t care, but revel in it. But Donald Trump – who is today signing an executive order aimed at unravelling Barack Obama's climate legacy – hasn’t forgotten them.

In a recent speech in Detroit, Trump spoke with an auspicious air. He had come to inoculate Detroit against a Europe where the Ford F-150 isn’t welcome, against a Midwest no longer made in the image of Motor City in the 1950s. Obama didn’t invite the CEOs of General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler to the Oval Office before reaffirming, in his final months, an executive order that nearly doubled corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards, to bring America’s fleet in line with Europe’s – and increasing manufacturing costs by billions over the next decade.

But with Trump in charge, Mary Barra, Mark Fields and Sergio Marchionne have a seat at the table. The stringent CAFE standards are out the door, as are other ‘industry-killing regulations’ and ‘job-crushing taxes’. In exchange, the automobile industry has to buy American and hire American. Ford, Trump said (yet again), had already cancelled its scheduled $1.5 billion plant in Mexico and is hiring 700 new workers in Michigan. ‘That’s peanuts,’ the president admitted, but more announcements are forthcoming. This will be the car capital of the world again.

It wasn’t long ago that the US auto industry nearly collapsed. Car companies shed 400,000 jobs in 2008 alone and Michigan closed one-third of its factories. Obama bailed out Chrysler and General Motors with loan guarantees (a whole supply chain was at risk, and therefore so was Ford). The auto sector emerged from bankruptcy, earning record profits by 2015, partly thanks to a drop in oil prices. But they had moved nearly all production of small and medium-sized vehicles out of the US, while reserving domestic factories for trucks and SUVs that won’t sell abroad. The Obama administration then added billions in environmental compliance costs to the manufacture of trucks and SUVs.

Trump won Michigan last November by promising jobs to blue-collar voters. He will fail in the long term because of forces beyond his control – automation, above all – but perceptions in the shorter term are what matters. The US oil, gas and chemical industries are pampered and prosperous, but exports of metals and automobiles make up a shrinking share of total output. Last year the US trade deficit in goods was $750 billion. It makes no economic sense to build a new coal-fired plant in the US today; wind turbines are made cheapest in China; the profit margins of domestic car manufacturing are slim. Trump can pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Nafta and even the Paris Agreement. But he can’t turn coal into gold.

The weakening of CAFE standards is a harsh blow to the United States’ already asthmatic climate efforts, far harsher than Trump’s planned repeal of the Clean Power Plan, one-third of whose 2030 targets have already been met by the displacement of coal by gas in the electricity sector. Road transport is the largest growing source of US emissions, the highest per capita in the world. The average commuter in Los Angeles or Washington DC squanders 80 hours per year delayed in traffic jams; it’s impossible to walk through most American cities. The whole country is rolling coal.