Critics to Trump: Pump the brakes on car mpg rollback

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Environmentalists and consumer advocates pleaded Wednesday with officials from President Donald Trump’s administration to not roll back stringent fuel economy rules for cars enacted by former President Barack Obama. Automakers, meanwhile, pressed for relief from the standards that are estimated by some to add at least $2,000 to the sticker price of a vehicle.

Speaking at the only public comment hearing scheduled by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, supporters argued that the mileage rules – which require automakers to produce car and truck fleets averaging more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025 – are achievable without causing drastic increases in the price of cars.

“I’m here today to call on EPA to continue the tremendous success and leadership of its clean cars program, and to condemn the current administration’s signals that it will recklessly weaken these standards and shortchange EPA’s role,” said Martha Roberts, senior attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund’s U.S. Climate Legal and Regulatory program.

“EPA’s clean car standards save consumers money, boost our energy security, protect American jobs by keeping the U.S. auto industry competitive in the global market, and protect us from the growing threat of climate change,” Roberts continued. “Right now we need no reminder of the incredible risks we face from increased extreme weather and sea level rise.”

The mileage rules for the model years between 2022 and 2025 were by law originally set to be reviewed for their feasibility by April 2018, but in a move that riled environmentalists and consumer advocates, the Trump administration said last month they are also accepting comments on the rules for the 2021 model year, by which automakers will be required to hit a combined average of 41 miles per gallon for their cars and trucks.

Under the Obama administration’s proposal, enacted in 2012, the rules for the model years between 2017 and 2021 were supposed to be locked in place. The increase, which some automakers have said is too ambitious, requires an average of over 35 miles per gallon for 2017 models. The mileage rules call for automakers to achieve a fleetwide average mileage rate of more than 36 miles per gallon for cars and trucks in 2018. The standard then increases to more than 37 miles per gallon in 2019 and nearly 39 miles per gallon in 2020, which is the last year before automakers will have a chance to weigh in on the need for any course corrections.

Automakers will face fines of $5.50 for each one-tenth of a mile-per-gallon their average fuel economy falls short of the standard for a model year, multiplied by the total volume of vehicles sold under the new regulations.

Car manufacturers have argued that lower gas prices could make fuel-efficient cars less desirable to customers who are looking to buy larger vehicles such as SUVs and trucks. They have also complained the Obama administration moved too hastily to finalize the mileage rules before the review they were promised could be conducted.

Chris Nevers, Vice President of Energy and Environment for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said Wednesday the industry “is committed to continued gains in fuel efficiency and carbon reduction.”

He added: “To keep costs reasonable for buyers and maximize future production levels and fleet turnover, it is vital to clearly focus on consumer preferences and market realities.”

Rhett Ricart, regulatory affairs committee chairman for the National Automobile Dealers Association and president and CEO of Ricart Automotive Group in Groveport, Ohio, agreed that fuel-efficient cars may sit on U.S. showrooms if the stringent rules for gas mileage are left in place with out any mid-course corrections.

Ricart said in his experience drivers typically do not buy cars solely because of their gas mileage. But he said they usually compare the fuel performance of similarly priced models before they decide to make a purchase.

“Sure, customers value fuel economy less when fuel prices are low, and more when they are high,” Ricart said. “But they don’t buy fuel economy – they buy cars and trucks and SUVs…vehicles that meet their needs and satisfy their desires.”

Ricart added: “Government policies mandating vehicles that fail to meet the needs, desires, or financial constraints of customers will force them to opt for driving what they have or buying used. And if that happens, we all lose.”

Automakers lobbied for a mid-point review when the mileage rules were first enacted to ensure that the standard were still feasible for the last four model years that are included in the mandate, but the Trump administration appears to be willing to go one step further by considering rolling back the rules for an additional year.

In announcing the review of the mileage rules, Trump reversed a decision by the Obama administration to finalize the rules ahead of schedule during the former president’s final weeks in office.

Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, charged that the move to reopen and expand the review of mileage rules is a “political ploy” by a White House that is set on dismantling environmental protections put in place by Obama.

“Another evaluation of the successful clean-car program is a political ploy and a waste of taxpayer resources,” Suh said. “Any honest review of the program that’s based on science will reaffirm that the standards are achievable and should remain in place.”

Jack Barnett, research assistant for Consumers Union, agreed the mileage standards put in place by the Obama administration are working to improve the fuel efficiency of U.S. cars and he said the rules are also popular with drivers.

“Consumers are even willing to pay more for more efficient vehicles,” he said. “Our analysis of the model year 2017-2025 standards found that consumers could expect net savings of $3,200 per car and $4,800 per truck over the life of their vehicle, even if gas prices remain low.”

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing