White House proposes weaker auto emissions rules, overriding California
WASHINGTON -- The Trump administration on Thursday proposed capping federal fuel efficiency requirements for passenger vehicles at the 2020 model year level of 35 mpg, instead of letting them continue to rise through 2025 to about 50 mpg as planned under the Obama administration.
The notice of proposed rulemaking also declared that the 1975 law that established fuel efficiency standards pre-empts California from setting its own carbon emission standards for vehicles and that a waiver from federal rules allowing it to set stricter standards on its own should be revoked -- setting up a likely court clash.
The draft rule, jointly written by the EPA and NHTSA, includes a range of options for modifying the fleet fuel economy and emissions standards, but makes clear the preference is to freeze the standards at the 2020 model year level.
The new plan, if adopted in a final rule after a public comment period, would dramatically weaken President Barack Obama’s most far-reaching policy intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.
The Thursday move, widely anticipated, was quickly criticized by environmentalists and lawmakers from several states. California Gov. Jerry Brown said his state "will fight this stupidity in every conceivable way possible."
Trump embraces automakers
The effort began early last year after President Donald Trump embraced automakers’ appeals to relax the aggressive standards and make compliance more manageable. In the spring, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt determined that the Obama administration’s five-year re-evaluation of whether the 2021-25 model year standards were still feasible was faulty and ordered a new review.
Under existing rules, standards vary by model based on a size footprint. A Honda Fit, for example, would need to get 62 mpg by the 2025 model year, while a Chevy Silverado would comply with 35 mpg.
Automakers got more than they bargained for when Pruitt, a self-professed “small-government” champion, pushed for a significant rollback of the fuel economy standards and revoking California’s waiver. There are differences among the major companies over how much the phased-in standards to which they agreed in 2012 should be watered down.
But the consensus is for rules that California can accept so that the state, and a dozen others that follow its program, continue to participate in a harmonized national program. Without a unified program, automakers face the expensive prospect of building and marketing vehicles for two markets or losing sales of some models in certain states.
"We applaud the president and the administration for releasing this much anticipated proposal that includes a variety of standards for public consideration," the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Association of Global Automakers said in a statement. "Automakers support continued improvements in fuel economy and flexibilities that incentivize advanced technologies while balancing priorities like affordability, safety, jobs, and the environment.
"With today’s release of the Administration’s proposals, it’s time for substantive negotiations to begin."
'Common sense solution'
The statement urged California and the federal government "to find a common sense solution that sets continued increases in vehicle efficiency standards while also meeting the needs of America’s drivers.”
Pruitt did not see the proposed rulemaking to its conclusion, having resigned last month under pressure for a series of ethical and management lapses that brought negative attention on the White House. Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former fossil fuel and coal industry lobbyist who once worked for climate-change denier Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., reportedly worried that the proposal was legally and technically weak, making it vulnerable to rejection in court.
At a Senate hearing Wednesday he encouraged the auto industry and California to find a compromise that would enable continuation of a single national program.
The draft rule contends that the existing rules are too costly and would lead to production of lighter cars, resulting in about 12,000 more traffic fatalities over a dozen years, primarily because vehicles will be cheaper and encourage consumers to replace their older vehicles and buy newer, safer cars. Consumers may delay or forgo the acquisition of safer vehicles as a result of higher prices associated with clean car and safety technologies, the rulemaking says.
The freeze would increase U.S. oil consumption by about 500,000 barrels of oil per day by the 2030s. It also argues that people will drive less with cars that burn more fuel, further protecting them from potential accidents.
Critics say the administration based its decision on ideology, with thin data to justify weakening the emissions rules, compared with the voluminous scientific record developed by the Obama EPA.
California and its allies previously threatened to sue the federal government if the corporate average fuel economy rules are rolled back. Protracted litigation is likely over the stringency of the fuel economy rules, a determination that California is pre-empted by the Environmental Protection and Conservation Act from regulating carbon emissions from autos and moves to revoke California’s waiver from federal standards, according to stakeholders and experts.
Fifty-one House Democrats last week signed onto a resolution supporting the clean car standards and defending state authority under the Clean Air Act to protect their citizens from harmful air pollution. Senate Democrats have also criticized the administration's decision.
The government said it will hold three public hearings in Washington, Detroit and Los Angeles to gather input on the proposals, with dates to be determined.
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