WASHINGTON — Auto executives visiting the White House Friday, May 11, will to try to save the national fuel economy and emissions program from a Trump administration buzz saw that they fear could usher in years of litigation and uncertainty rather than the leeway they sought.
Clean-air advocates have sounded alarms about a dramatic weakening of Obama-era efficiency and emissions standards described in a leaked draft proposal by federal transportation and environmental agencies.
According to a detailed summary of the document publicly shared by Sen. Tom Carper, D- Del., the preferred option flatlines fuel economy standards at the 2020 model year level of about 37 mpg through the 2026 model year, compared with current projected fleetwide average levels of 46.8 mpg for the 2026 model year.
The reported changes may be more than automakers bargained for when they requested a rewrite of 2022-25 model year emissions targets that would ratchet up more gradually and offer more compliance flexibility.
"I don't think anybody in industry, when asked for reopening of standards, asked to level out to zero," a lobbyist for a major auto manufacturer said in an interview.
Automakers should have expected a far-reaching proposal, said Andrew Linhardt, deputy director of the Sierra Club's clean energy campaign.
"You've got to know your audience," he said. "If you go to [EPA Administrator] Scott Pruitt and Donald Trump and say you want relief from the rules and they are going to cost jobs, this is what you end up with."
Automakers' stated priority is finding a sweet spot where modest changes can be made to the program without risk of losing the support of California's strict air-quality regulators, so that they can sell all models in every state. The Trump proposal jeopardizes that by seeking to scuttle California's authority to set stricter emissions rules if it objects to the federal plan.
The legal fight is underway. Seventeen states have sued the EPA to preserve the single emission standard, challenging Pruitt's April 2 ruling that the existing rules are too aggressive. That decision set in motion a new rule-making process embodied in the draft proposal.
Pruitt has acknowledged he might try to revoke the state's waiver under the Clean Air Act to set its own rules. The draft proposal argues that California is pre-empted by the 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act from setting fuel economy standards or a zero-emission vehicle mandate.
Ann Carlson, a professor of environmental law at the University of California, Los Angeles, wrote in a blog post that California regulates greenhouse gases, not fuel economy, and that NHTSA, which administers the federal fuel economy program, lacks authority to override California's waiver.
She also argued that the draft proposal is legally tenuous because Pruitt's April ruling covered only the 2022-25 model year standards, whereas the proposal would eliminate the 2021 model year standard and extend 2020 model year standards for six years.
"It is hard to imagine a court upholding the agency's right to withdraw the standards with no evidence in the record for doing so," she wrote. "Instead, this seems to be a flagrant attempt to say, 'We aren't going to regulate you at all' given that manufacturers have already had to factor the 2020 standards into their production decisions."
The auto industry CEOs invited to the White House will reiterate that they support continuous improvements in fuel economy and aligning standards with market demand, said Wade Newton, a spokesman at the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. "We'll also underscore our support for one national program because it is best for our customers, who avoid higher prices from the redundancies of three government agencies regulating the same thing. And an agreement among the federal government, California and the auto industry is better than years of litigation."
Margo Oge, a former Obama administration EPA official who helped develop the emissions standards, said, "The only winner I see in this is the oil industry," because it will be able to sell up to 206 billion extra gallons of gasoline over 30 years.
Oge urged the auto CEOs "to call on Mr. Trump and tell him, 'We are not looking for you to completely gut the 2025 greenhouse gas standards and get into litigation, because it will be bad for business.' "