Washington — The Obama administration is barreling ahead with a number of regulations that affect automakers in its final days, despite President-elect Donald Trump’s promise to drastically reduce the burden of federal rules on U.S. businesses.
Jeff Davis, senior fellow for the independent Eno Center for Transportation think tank, said transportation officials in the Obama administration may be trying to “flood the zone” to make it difficult for Trump to repeal its proposed rules after he takes office.
For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is trying to finalize gas mileage rules before Obama leaves office in January.
“Getting rid of these rules isn’t something Trump can do with the stroke of a pen on Jan. 20,” Davis said. “A lot of these rules can be with us for a long time, even if the administration is actively opposed to them from Day One.”
Trump has been largely quiet on transportation since his election, focusing mostly on issues involving trade and job preservation. He has clashed with Ford Motor Co. in particular over its plans to move small-car production to Mexico.
Other pending issues that will be left for Trump to address include new rules for self-driving and connected cars.
Automakers largely believe they may have a friendlier ear in Trump despite dust-ups with the president-elect. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which lobbies for automakers in Washington, already has pushed Trump to roll back gas mileage rules.
The auto alliance represents Fiat Chrysler, Ford, GM, BMW Group, Jaguar Land Rover, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz USA, Mitsubishi Motors, Porsche, Toyota, Volkswagen Group of America and Volvo Car USA. The group has said the EPA has “unnecessarily politicized” the midterm review of the emission standards that was to conclude in April 2018.
The auto alliance said the EPA’s move to finalize the mpg rules early is an “extraordinary and premature rush to judgment” that “circumvents the serious analysis necessary to make sure the CAFE/GHG standards appropriately balance fuel efficiency, carbon reduction, affordability and employment.”
EPA officials have defended the decision to finalize the auto emission rules early, framing the move as an effort to provide certainty about regulatory requirements to automakers instead of an effort to pre-empt Trump. The agency on Thursday denied a petition from auto lobbying groups that called for it to withdraw its proposed determination on the viability of the future gas mileage rules.
John Bozzella, president and CEO of the Association of Global Automakers, which represents international automakers, said after the dismissal: “EPA’s hurried determination, and lack of transparency, only increases suspicions surrounding the agency’s decision, undermining confidence in its objectivity and impartiality.”
The U.S. Department of Transportation, which has worked with the EPA on the mileage rules in the past, has tried to remain above the fray in the fight over mileage standards. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is part of the transportation department, has moved to postpone a congressionally mandated increase in the fines for auto companies that do not comply with the stringent fuel-efficiency standards.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has defended the Obama administration’s efforts to set up a national framework for self-driving testing and finalize rules for connected cars that have been pending for years, however.
Foxx told reporters during a recent press briefing in Washington that the Obama administration’s proposed self-driving guidelines are a “seminal document” that “is the most comprehensive document of its kind in the world.
“The framework it lays out, I believe will stand up over time,” Foxx said. “It doesn’t answer every question. It doesn’t pretend to. In fact, it lays out questions that need to be answered over time. That’s where the work is.”
‘On the chopping block’
Trump has not weighed in publicly on the fight over gas mileage regulations or self-driving car rules. He has appointed former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao to lead the transportation department in the next administration, and he has tapped Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a climate-change skeptic, to run the EPA.
In a questionnaire Chao submitted to Senate Commerce Committee, which will consider her nomination next year, she said her priority at the transportation department will be “to maintain a culture of good stewardship on behalf of the American people.”
Chao made no reference to the pending auto regulations, focusing instead on the need to streamline the permitting process for infrastructure projects that have been stuck in the federal pipeline.
“Given the nation’s need to improve critical infrastructure, it is important to find ways to expedite the process of making repairs and building new constructions and decreasing the regulatory burdens when appropriate,” she wrote.
Trump’s decision to choose Pruitt, who has sued the EPA over climate regulations and has said the climate debate is “far from settled,” has been widely seen as a signal the gas mileage rules are in trouble after Trump takes office.
“Anything related to greenhouse gas emissions and fuel efficiency is probably going to be on the chopping block,” said the Eno Center’s Davis, although he noted it will take at least a year for Trump to undo any of Obama’s regulations that were completed under the federal rule-making process, unless Congress intervenes.
Consumer safety advocates have raised concerns Trump will roll back protections put in place by the Obama administration, especially when it comes to self-driving cars and trucks.
“There seems to be this anti-regulatory mentality to do away with as many regulations as possible, which would make robot cars even more of Wild, Wild West than it already is,” said John Simpson, privacy project director at the Santa Monica, California-based Consumer Watchdog group.
Jack Nerad, executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book, said the Obama administration likely knows many of its proposed rules will be heading for the scrap heap once Trump takes office.
“The outgoing Obama administration is intent on leaving a legacy and, at the same time, it is setting up some political ‘ducks’ even though President Obama must know that many if not all of the rules and regulations he is putting in place will immediately be modified, reversed or discarded by the Trump administration and/or the Republican-controlled Congress,” Nerad said.
But Nerad added there could still be political benefits to Democrats for picking fights with Republicans in the Trump administration over energy protections such as gas mileage rules.
“For example, by setting up tough environmental regulations that will be discarded, the Democrats can claim they are more concerned about the environment than the Republicans, who are likely to rescind the regulations as too far-reaching and onerous,” he said.