WASHINGTON — The Trump administration reopened the feasibility review for 2022-25 fuel economy standards in 2017 because it said the process conducted under President Barack Obama was rushed and politically motivated.
Now, critics of the new NHTSA-led proposal to freeze the standards at 2020 levels argue that it's the Trump administration that's playing politics as it tries to roll back its predecessors' policies.
They say the preliminary rulemaking issued this month was completed at warp speed with thin scientific evidence — claims that could undergird a coming wave of legal challenges to the proposal from states and environmental groups.
Their ammunition comes from an internal government document made public last week in which senior EPA staffers told the White House that many of NHTSA's predictions and justifications for the rollback were faulty, particularly its claims that the Obama-era rules would make new cars too expensive and lead to more highway deaths.
NHTSA's consumer choice model, for example, asserts that the added costs of fuel-saving technologies will motivate people to hang on to older vehicles that lack advanced safety features (even as the fuel savings encourage them to drive more).
It predicts that the existing rules would cut new-car sales by about 8,000 vehicles a year through 2032, but that the used-car fleet would grow an average of 512,000 units per year. That estimate underpins its calculation that the current rules would result in 12,000 additional deaths over a dozen years.
"It's hard to imagine any real-world scenario under which over 60 additional used vehicles are retained for each new vehicle that the sales model predicts will be unsold as a result of the higher new vehicle prices," wrote William Charmley, director of assessments and standards in EPA's air quality office.
The EPA said data inputs used in its model show that the proposed rule would cause 17 more deaths per year than under the Obama proposal.
An EPA spokesman told Reuters last week that the comments in the document reflected just part of a much broader discussion that led to the agencies' rollback proposal, which is still subject to a public-comment period.
Still, opponents of the administration's approach are seizing on the document, and the apparent conflict between NHTSA and EPA data models, as evidence that the proposal and the process used to develop it don't meet the scientific standards for data analysis required under law.
The agencies "must pull their proposed rule back and focus on strengthening the standards — as the people and facts support — rather than continue with this charade," the Sierra Club said in a statement.
Among the other points of contention raised in the EPA document:
Researchers typically assume people will drive fuel-efficient vehicles more as the cost per mile decreases, but NHTSA's model assumes people will keep their older, less-efficient cars and drive more, which the EPA analysis said is "inappropriate" by definition.
NHTSA says the proposal would save society a net $49 billion compared with the current rule, while the EPA said it would cost $83 billion more. NHTSA based most of its calculations on cars built before 2021, an analysis of the document shows.
The EPA complained that NHTSA overestimated the effect of the Obama rules on new-car prices, and the estimated time to recover the cost — because it factored in the use of the most-expensive technology upfront rather than assuming manufacturers will choose the least costly technology to meet the mandate.