WASHINGTON — As director of the EPA's transportation and air quality office under President Barack Obama, Margo Oge helped broker the 2012 agreement between automakers, the federal government and California that resulted in a single national program for doubling fleetwide fuel efficiency.
But the clean air regime she helped orchestrate is now in jeopardy after the Trump administration proposed freezing the 2021-2025 graduated standards at the 2020 level, a move that California adamantly opposes.
Oge is frustrated by the effort to weaken clean car rules, and by a rule-making process under the Trump administration that she sees as opaque and politically driven. But she says there still is a way for automakers to salvage a financial victory.
She spoke last week with Washington reporter Eric Kulisch. Here are edited excerpts:
Q: NHTSA Acting Administrator Heidi King says the CAFE rulemaking process during the Obama administration was secretive, with limited outside input, and that the new rulemaking was more open and inclusive for consumers. What's your reaction?
A: The new proposal has been met with a lot of negative remarks from all the stakeholders, with the exception of the oil industry, whereas the result of our process was met with broad support from all the car companies [minus Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz], suppliers, safety and consumer groups, and state and local governments. In my history of 32 years at EPA, it's unheard of to have all the car companies agreeing with a proposed rule.
Our process was open to everybody. President Obama in 2010 ordered NHTSA and EPA to work with California and all the stakeholders with a purpose of establishing a national program. The three agencies formed a team of technical experts, who met on a biweekly basis over two years and discussed various elements of the proposal.
Together they visited each of the car companies and their engineers at least two to three times. Then the political appointees got together to discuss the results. We met with state and local governments. We met with Consumer Federation of America and the UAW numerous times. We met with AAA, with dealers, safety groups, suppliers in an open-door process.
So how do the automakers move forward?
There's nothing in this proposal that will allow California to collaborate with the federal government towards a national program. The other options in the rule won't bring California on board either.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers recommended to the agencies to keep the 2025 option the way it is, along with some flexibilities.
They wanted a little more room to meet the standards, like continuing not to count upstream emissions against carmakers' [compliance], which makes no sense; having more flexibility to gain credits for off-cycle strategies; maybe more incentives for hybrids and electric cars. That is nowhere in the NHTSA proposal.
We're talking sometime in 2019 before a rule is finalized, and it will take two or three years for courts to hear suits from states and interest groups. Automakers need to know today what they are going to build four years from now.
So the auto manufacturers need to make a deal with California that provides the industry with certainty to invest and manufacture the new cars.
Mary Nichols [chief of the California Air Resources Board] has publicly said she's willing to talk to car companies and discuss the flexibilities they are looking for, and there is a public hearing next month to consider amendments to the 2025 greenhouse gas program.
The automakers have an opportunity to work with California and shape the flexibilities they are looking for, and have legal certainty that cars they build will meet requirements for 40 percent of the market, and continue to innovate and be global players.
This would become a de facto national program. This is the opportunity for the car companies to cooperate and develop a legally certain framework so that they can continue to invest.
Would a grand bargain stand up if the administration is successful in its attempt to rescind California's authority to set stricter vehicle emissions standards?
There's nothing in Clean Air Act that allows an administrator to revoke a waiver. We have given 150 or so waivers to California over the years. What the administration is trying to do is take back waivers we gave to states for the clean car program, which goes beyond GHG. It has nitrogen oxide, hydrocarbons, all the pollutants.
It's going to end up in court and in my view, there's no way the courts will agree with the administration.