WASHINGTON — The federal government's review of fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards for next decade is supposed to be a technical, data-driven exercise.
Such a by-the-numbers approach is supposed to lead to an objective determination, free of politics, of whether automakers can realistically meet the standards agreed to in 2011 or deserve some leeway.
But policymaking never takes place in a political vacuum, and that explains why the 2022-25 model year standards were finalized in January by the departing Obama administration's EPA after an accelerated review, and unfinalized in March by the Trump administration to start a longer review ahead of the April 2018 deadline.
The second review will be a numbers-based exercise, too, but amid pressure from the industry and a changed political climate, some additional data points will be taken into account or given more weight than they were before.
The auto industry says it just wants a fair process that includes the most accurate, up-to-date models, data and assumptions, wherever that might lead. But critics see the government's approach as part of a broader assault on scientific principles underpinning federal environmental policy.
"The way this administration is approaching so many issues, it's hard to have confidence that [fuel economy standards] won't be politicized," said Christine Todd Whitman, a former GOP governor of New Jersey who was EPA administrator from 2001 to 2003 under President George W. Bush.
When crafting the standards, regulators in 2011 had to make a decade's worth of assumptions about the price of gasoline, the car-truck split in the marketplace, the cost of technology and other factors, and agreed to reassess them halfway through the program.
In concluding that review last fall, regulators determined that technology development for the 2025 model year standard would cost 25 percent less than first estimated and the data were enough to support an even stricter standard.
But in seeking the extended review, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said the Obama EPA failed to account for new information on the rising cost of fuel-saving technology and whether consumers are willing to pay for it.
A technical assessment 14 months ago, the Auto Alliance notes, did not include sales data for 2016 and 2017, and those figures, which correlate with the steep decline in fuel prices since 2014, could paint a different picture of demand for efficient vehicles.
Five years ago, regulators figured that two-thirds of vehicles sold in 2025 would be light trucks, but that level has been reached eight years early, with cars now representing about one-third of U.S. light-vehicle sales.
Industry officials say they don't want to get too far ahead of consumer preferences because they won't be able to recoup their r&d investments as quickly, and if the cost of new fuel-saving technology rises too fast, people will hold on to their existing cars longer, undermining clean air goals.
"If people aren't buying them, we miss our compliance targets," Auto Alliance spokeswoman Gloria Bergquist said.
So data on the role of consumers' tastes and experiences will play a larger role. The EPA will expand its real-world testing of powertrains to include a diesel engine, a 10-speed transmission and a downsized turbocharged engine, Christopher Grundler, director of the EPA's Office of Transportation and Air Quality, told an industry gathering in August, as a way of measuring whether fuel-saving technology will resonate in the marketplace. (A recent study by Emissions Analytics of real-world emissions cast doubt on the efficacy of some popular technologies designed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and boost fuel economy.)
The agency will also buy consumer data that surveys new-vehicle buyers on such things as their satisfaction with their real-world fuel economy, as well as develop new screening methods to find out if engines behave in real driving conditions as they do in the laboratory.
The EPA is also working to ensure its testing methods are uniform across all its labs and that the data are certified by other labs as being accurate.
Environmental and health advocates see these added data streams as diluting the scientific integrity of the original standards, noting that the EPA's 2016 technical assessment was already very thorough.
"What the EPA based its decision on was a peer-reviewed, comprehensive record compared to what the automakers, who as regulated entities may not be as objective, are saying," said Carol Lee Rawn, transportation program director at the sustainability nonprofit organization Ceres.
David Friedman, former deputy administrator at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which oversees the federal fuel economy program in conjunction with the EPA's greenhouse gas program, said the EPA's methodology represented "the gold standard" for determining the cost of technologies.
"They were literally tearing apart engines and transmissions so they could understand every piece that made up those components," said Friedman, now director of cars and product policy and analysis at Consumers Union. "On top of that, they used sophisticated computer tools, plus real-world data to evaluate the fuel-saving potential of the technologies."
Margo Oge, who helped broker the 2011 agreement as director of the EPA's Office of Transportation and Air Quality, said the agency spent $30 million to break down the various technologies and determine their cost.
The current EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, hasn't exactly tamped down his critics' concerns. In a recent radio interview, Pruitt said science shouldn't overly influence policy. He advocated for the U.S. to withdraw from the Paris climate accord backed by nearly every country in the world and, according to a report in the New York Times, has also taken steps to challenge the scientific consensus on climate change.
Whitman, the former EPA administrator who now heads an environmental consulting firm, decried those steps as a "slow-rolling catastrophe in the making" in a Times op-ed article last month, noting that some scientists have been fired or resigned out of frustration.
"I don't see them relying on science the way they should, Whitman told Automotive News. "They've undercut science in the agency, and that's enormously troubling."