Obama Administration Begins Quiet Push to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Wed April 20, 2016 - National Edition

U.S. vehicle emissions have doubled since the 1970s, and now make up more than one-fourth of all U.S. emissions.
U.S. vehicle emissions have doubled since the 1970s, and now make up more than one-fourth of all U.S. emissions.

Politico is reporting that the Obama administration has begun a quiet push to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions created by transportation projects, a new front in the president's global fight to limit climate change.

Administration officials told POLITICO they are about to propose rules that could force recipients of federal transportation dollars to track transportation-related emissions and set goals for cutting them. There are no plans for federal targets or penalties, but the hope is that making state and regional infrastructure planners take climate impacts into consideration will encourage smarter growth, mass transit, electric vehicles and other emissions reduction strategies, while discouraging sprawl-inducing exurban roads to nowhere.

U.S. vehicle emissions have doubled since the 1970s, and now make up more than one-fourth of all U.S. emissions. In February, President Obama unveiled a $320 billion plan for a “21st century clean transportation system” funded by a $10-per-barrel tax on oil, but it was dead on arrival in the Republican Congress. Environmental groups and some blue-state transportation officials have pushed performance measures for greenhouse gases as a way for Obama to take unilateral action, and after months of internal debate, the administration is moving ahead with them, hoping to nudge U.S. infrastructure planning in a greener direction.

“You can't manage what you don't measure,” a senior Department of Transportation official told POLITICO. “This is groundbreaking stuff.”

The new Federal Highway Administration rulemaking aims to require recipients of federal transportation dollars — mostly states, cities and metropolitan planning organizations — to monitor, report and set targets to improve their performance on a variety of categories laid out in the 2012 transportation bill, including travel reliability, peak-hour congestion, freight movements, and on-road emissions of pollutants like ozone and soot. The original bill did not specifically address greenhouse gases, but the Department of Transportation — after some tense meetings with White House environmental and budget officials — will also seek comment on whether and how to establish performance measures for climate-related pollution. The administration hopes to finalize the rule before the end of the year, forcing state and local officials to account for the emissions generated by their asphalt for the first time.

The rules would not prescribe or prohibit specific projects, but it's no secret that in the transportation world, concern about climate usually translates into concern about new and wider roads. Nick Goldstein, vice president for regulatory affairs with the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, warned that a mandate for agencies to set climate targets could be used as a pretext to discourage highway construction at a time when America desperately needs better infrastructure. He suggested the Obama administration has embraced an anti-asphalt mentality that assumes new roads produce demand for more cars and exurban development, when Goldstein believes they merely accommodate existing demand.

To view Politico's full report, click here.