The Trump administration’s chief environmental regulator signaled a coming showdown with California, warning the state won’t dictate the future of ambitious automobile fuel economy regulations enacted by the Obama administration.
"California is not the arbiter of these issues," said EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. California regulates greenhouse gas emissions at the state level, "but that shouldn’t and can’t dictate to the rest of the country what these levels are going to be."
The EPA faces an April 1 deadline to decide whether Obama-era corporate average fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks from 2022 to 2025 are attainable or should be revised.
President Donald Trump’s administration already ripped up the EPA’s conclusion that no changes are needed, issued by the agency during former President Barack Obama’s final weeks in the White House.
During a wide-ranging interview with Bloomberg News on Tuesday, Pruitt dismissed the possibility of setting standards beyond 2025, casting doubt on an offer by California officials who have said they would consider easing current standards in exchange for extending them beyond that year. The state is developing its own standards through 2030.
"Being predictive about what’s going to be taking place out in 2030 is really hard," Pruitt said. "I think it creates problems when you do that too aggressively. That’s not something we’re terribly focused on right now."
Pruitt said the EPA is not "presently" looking at extending standards beyond 2025. California Air Resources Board Chairman Mary Nichols has signaled a willingness to discuss altering the state’s auto rules in the near term if the Trump administration agrees to develop efficiency targets further into the future.
Automakers aggressively lobbied Trump to take a new look at the standards, arguing they need to be reviewed in light of surging light-truck sales, low gasoline prices and tepid demand for plug-in vehicles.
Even so, the companies have repeatedly stressed in recent weeks that they hope the federal government and California will continue coordinating their tailpipe emissions policies. They’ve also invested billions of dollars in electric cars aimed not just at California but also overseas markets, especially China.
Pruitt said setting fuel economy standards that are too aggressive would be counterproductive.
"The whole purpose of CAFE standards is to make cars more efficient that people are actually buying," Pruitt said. "If you just come in and try to drive this to a point where the auto sector in Detroit just makes cars that people don’t want to purchase, then people are staying in older cars, and the emission levels are worse, which defeats the overall purpose of what we’re trying to achieve."
Environmentalists fear a rollback in the rules would increase air pollution, threaten global climates, and penalize American consumers.
“Not only does Scott Pruitt want to put the brakes on these important standards, he’s even going so far as to try to limit a state’s right to manage air pollution within its own borders," said Andrew Linhardt, the Sierra Club's deputy legislative director. "These clean car standards are popular among the public, and they’re working. The only people who would benefit from this backwards policy are car manufacturing executives who want to put America’s climate progress in reverse.”
The current debate was set in motion seven years ago, when automakers agreed to a trio of coordinated fuel economy rules overseen by the EPA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and CARB that get more stringent each year through 2025. The requirements target a fleet average of more than 50 miles per gallon -- equivalent to about 36 mpg in real-world driving.
"We want to hear from those folks in California and hear from the political leadership and try to make some informed decisions, but also say at the same time, we have a job to do," Pruitt said. "We’re going to do our job. And if there are steps being taken to impede that, we’ll have to address that."
Reached by telephone Tuesday, Nichols said, “My only comment is, ‘nothing new.’ That’s it.”