Carmakers poised for big win on fuel rules

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Automakers are poised for a big win when President Donald Trump’s administration unveils its decision as early as next week about the fate of stringent gas mileage rules.

The Trump administration has telegraphed for more than a year it is likely to at least partially roll back the mileage rules – known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards – requiring them to produce fleets that average more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025.

Former President Barack Obama’s administration administration rushed to finalize the standards in the months after Trump’s win in the 2016 election, but the decision was overturned by Trump in 2017.

The mileage rules enacted in 2012 began taking effect with the 2017 model year. They call for ramping up from the current fleet-wide average of about 35 miles per gallon for cars and trucks to an eventual goal of between 50 and 52.6 miles per gallon by 2025. The goal was revised down from an initial target of 54.5 miles per gallon, and the rules were subjected to a mid-term review that is required by law to conclude in April.

Gloria Bergquist, vice president of communications and public affairs for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which lobbies for major carmakers in Washington, said she expects the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will say the final standards approved by the Obama administration were incomplete or inappropriate.

“We support the rule-making process that has been in place for almost 50 years,” she said in an email. “Gather data, evaluate the max feasible fuel economy that optimizes other priorities like affordability, safety and jobs, and put it out for comment.”

Environmentalists and consumer advocates have painted a starkly different picture, arguing that the Trump administration is siding with automakers instead of drivers who have benefited from having more fuel-efficient cars and a cleaner environment.

Luke Tonachel, senior vehicles analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the fuel economy standards have thus far saved consumers more than $49 billion at the pump and eliminated 230 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.

“That’s the equivalent of the annual emissions spewed by 56 dirty coal plants,” he said.

David Friedman, director of cars and product policy and analysis for Consumers Union, said the Trump administration is focusing on “on undoing everything the previous administration did” when it comes environmental regulations, even if it means making cars less fuel-efficient and therefore more expensive to fill up.

“From a pure consumer perspective, any rollback means you’re going to spend more on gas,” he said.

The mileage rules were put in place by the Obama administration when gas prices topped $4 per gallon. Automakers have since argued that the rules are too stringent, and drivers have demonstrated in recent years that they are less interested in fuel-efficient cars and electric vehicles with gas prices that are now around $2.50.

The EPA did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Under the current rules, automakers 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. Automakers are allowed to purchase credits from other auto companies that have come in under the mileage requirements to cover pollution deficits.

Under a law that requires federal agencies to adjust civil fines to account for inflation, the penalty would gone up to $14 for every one-tenth of a mile-per-gallon automakers fell short, multiplied by the total volume of vehicles sold.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced Tuesday it is moving to cancel that fine increase – a move the Sierra Club called “a gift for automakers.”

Tonachel said the Natural Resources Defense Council has been pressing the Trump administration to leave the mileage rules in place. He said polling done by his group shows two-thirds of Americans are supportive of keeping them.

“Any rollback is unjustified and it’s harmful,” he said. “We’ve been making that case all along the way in the regulatory process.”

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing