Price expert questions federal officials’ use of ‘cherry-picked’ data to propose rolling back fuel standards

September 6, 2018

By Matthew Kredell

Professor Antonio Bento

Research from USC Price School of Public Policy Professor Antonio Bento, a leading scholar in the field of environmental and energy economics, is at the center of a contentious national debate on the Trump administration proposal to freeze antipollution and fuel-efficiency standards for cars.

Last year, the Trump administration began considering a rollback on Obama-era fuel standards. And in August, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) – citing Bento’s scholarly work 11 times – released a proposal with new rules that suggest freezing standards at 2020 levels through 2026, arguing that forcing automakers to build cleaner cars will lead to more highway accidents and deaths.

The NHTSA and EPA estimated that 12,700 road fatalities could be prevented through 2029 by relaxing the car standards. The proposal would also impact California by disallowing the state from setting pollution standards that are more stringent than the federal government’s standards.

Bento is the economist most cited in the proposed rules. The proposal references his influential body of research on fuel economy standards, including: “The Effect of Fuel Economy Standards on Vehicle Weight Dispersion and Accident Fatalities;” “Vehicle Lifetime Trends and Scrappage Behaviors in the U.S. Used Car Market;” and “Distributional and Efficiency Impacts of Increased US Gasoline Taxes.”

Bento: New fuel proposal ‘is a very problematic document’

One of the arguments made by the Trump administration, using Bento’s research, was that increasing fuel economy standards will force automakers to make their cars lighter, hurting safety.

Given the wide citation of his scholarship in the proposal, Bento was asked by numerous media outlets to comment on the rulemaking. In The New York Times and The Washington Post, Bento was critical of his research being used to make these claims.

He told the Washington Post that federal officials seemingly “cherry-picked” the results that would support the conclusion they sought to reach — namely, that the 2012 fuel-efficiency standards will lead to more fatalities on the road.

To the contrary, research co-authored by Bento suggested that a reduction of the overall weight of vehicles on the road may result in fewer fatalities as a result of car crashes. As the first study to empirically examine the distributional changes to vehicle weight generated by the federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, it determined that a decrease in mean weight is a more dominant outcome than an increase in weight dispersion.

“I don’t know how they are going to defend this analysis,” Bento said of the EPA-NHTSA proposal in the New York Times. He added, “I just don’t think it’s correct.”

Bento also took issue with how the government, in calculating fatalities, ignored this key point on the dispersion of the weight of vehicles in a crash, instead tying safety largely to the age of a vehicle.

“When you put it all together, you have a very problematic document,” Bento told the Washington Post. “One can be sympathetic and provide constructive feedback when there are a few mistakes, and mistakes that are done with no intention. But when you look at this entire document, I don’t think these mistakes happened by accident … I would not call these mistakes. I’d call it deliberately scaling down benefits and inflating costs.”

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