Trump just rolled back emissions standards — but critics say pandemic shows bigger risks

Critics of President Donald Trump's plan to roll back emissions standards for cars say Tuesday's decision to reverse the tighter, Obama-era regulations, is all the more consequential in light of the respiratory-based coronavirus pandemic.

The virus, which appears particularly lethal to those with asthma and other pulmonary diseases, demonstrates exactly why the U.S. should stop “moving in the wrong direction” by increasing vehicle pollution, Paul Billings, the national director of public policy for the American Lung Association, told NBC News.

The White House on Tuesday confirmed it would reject the federal fuel economy standards set under the Obama administration, lowering the minimum mileage of the average 2025 vehicle from 46.7 miles per gallon to 40.4 miles per gallon.

The move was billed by the administration as a way to reduce the cost of owning a vehicle while also saving lives, according to Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler, who said on Tuesday the new standards "will get more Americans into newer, cleaner, safer vehicles.”

The guidelines enacted in 2012 were the result of an unprecedented compromise between automakers, regulators and environmental and consumer groups. But automakers began to reverse course mid-decade as U.S. buyers rapidly began shifting from high-mileage sedans and coupes to less fuel-efficient SUVs and pickups.

The Obama administration declined to back down when a “mid-term review” was completed shortly before leaving office, but the incoming Trump administration soon reopened the process, revealing a draft proposal in 2018. It would have frozen mileage numbers well short of the 2025 target and was considered draconian enough that some automakers, including Ford, spoke out against the proposal.

In justifying the rollback, Wheeler and other administration officials cited projected benefits such as lower vehicle operating costs. That was countered by organizations including Consumer Reports, whose own study estimated the revision will collectively add another $300 billion in owner spending through the end of the decade.

The administration also touted the safety benefits of the new standards, saying that by making vehicles more expensive, sales would slow and new safety technologies would be take longer to make it onto the street.

However, Billings said the new rules are likely to result in 10,000 more deaths by 2035 by dumping out more pollution that results in asthma and other health problems, including pulmonary and heart disease. That is something, he told NBCNews, that should become even more worrisome right now.

“Sadly, the COIVD-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus lung health and the vulnerability the public has to a lung infect,” Billings said. “We know air pollution puts individuals at risk for lung infection. (And) there is evidence air pollution could make people more susceptible to diseases, especially if they already have chronic diseases such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder.”

“As someone with young grandkids, I’m worried about what the rollback in the mileage standards means for their future,” Jennifer Knightstep, a freelance photographer in Michigan, told NBC News. “Will global climate change impact me in my lifetime? Maybe not. Will it impact theirs? Definitely.”

Critics also contend that the rollback could create even more of a challenge to cleaning up tailpipe emissions than might seem because it could encourage manufacturers to back off from plans to bring large numbers of battery-electric vehicles to market over the coming decade.

What will happen next is uncertain. There is little doubt the rollback will be challenged in court, though for now, automakers who spoke to NBC News said they will wait to see what happens in court — or during the upcoming election — before they make any major changes to their fuel economy strategies.