The Oil Industry’s Covert Campaign to Rewrite American Car Emissions Rules

When the Trump administration laid out a plan this year that would eventually allow cars to emit more pollution, automakers, the obvious winners from the proposal, balked. The changes, they said, went too far even for them.

But it turns out that there was a hidden beneficiary of the plan that was pushing for the changes all along: the nation’s oil industry.

In Congress, on Facebook and in statehouses nationwide, Marathon Petroleum, the country’s largest refiner, worked with powerful oil-industry groups and a conservative policy network financed by the billionaire industrialist Charles G. Koch to run a stealth campaign to roll back car emissions standards, a New York Times investigation has found.

The campaign’s main argument for significantly easing fuel efficiency standards — that the United States is so awash in oil it no longer needs to worry about energy conservation — clashed with decades of federal energy and environmental policy.

“With oil scarcity no longer a concern,” Americans should be given a “choice in vehicles that best fit their needs,” read a draft of a letter that Marathon helped to circulate to members of Congress over the summer. Official correspondence later sent to regulators by more than a dozen lawmakers included phrases or sentences from the industry talking points, and the Trump administration’s proposed rules incorporate similar logic.

The industry had reason to urge the rollback of higher fuel efficiency standards proposed by former President Barack Obama. A quarter of the world’s oil is used to power cars, and less-thirsty vehicles mean lower gasoline sales.

In recent months, Marathon Petroleum also teamed up with the American Legislative Exchange Council, a secretive policy group financed by corporations as well as the Koch network, to draft legislation for states supporting the industry’s position. Its proposed resolution, dated Sept. 18, describes current fuel-efficiency rules as “a relic of a disproven narrative of resource scarcity” and says “unelected bureaucrats” shouldn’t dictate the cars Americans drive.

A separate industry campaign on Facebook, covertly run by an oil-industry lobby representing Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Phillips 66 and other oil giants, urged people to write to regulators to support the rollback.

The Facebook ads linked to a website with a picture of a grinning Mr. Obama. It asked, “Would YOU buy a used car from this man?” The site appears to have been so effective that a quarter of the 12,000 public comments received by the Department of Transportation can be traced to the petition, according to a Times analysis.Gary R. Heminger, Marathon’s chairman and chief executive, said in a statement that the company supported “sound fuel economy standards” and wanted to “help ensure they are achievable and based on existing technology.”

He added, “We appreciate the administration’s willingness to conduct a thorough review in order to ensure future standards are achievable and will actually benefit American consumers.”