EPA puts the brakes on Obama-era mpg rules

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — President Donald Trump’s administration is moving to overturn stringent gas mileage rules that would have required automakers to produce car fleets that averaged over 50 miles per gallon by 2025, setting up a clash with California over states’ rights.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt said the mileage rules – known as Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards — are “not appropriate and should be revised” in a determination announced Monday. The Trump administration did not disclose what the recommendations for the new standards will be.

The auto industry praised the decision, but groups representing consumers and environment were quick to criticize, and the California Air Resources Board and the state’s attorney general said it would fight any rollback.

Pruitt is expected to visit a car dealership in northern Virginia on Tuesday to tout the move.

The standards were set under President Barack Obama’s watch. “The Obama administration’s determination was wrong,” Pruitt said in a statement, referencing the Obama administration’s decision to finalize CAFE standards ahead of schedule in the months after Trump’s 2016 win.

“Obama’s EPA cut the midterm evaluation process short with politically charged expediency, made assumptions about the standards that didn’t comport with reality, and set the standards too high,” Pruitt said.

He said the EPA will launch a new rulemaking process to craft new mileage rules for the model years between 2022 to 2025. The decision is a major win for automakers, who argued that the Obama-era rules were too stringent and pushed the Trump administration to revive the mid-term review they were promised that was supposed to conclude in April 2018.

Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, which worked with the EPA under Obama to craft the national mileage rules, vowed Monday to fight the Trump administration’s effort to roll them back. California sets its own emissions standards under a waiver included in the 1970 Clean Air Act. A dozen other states have adopted the California rules, accounting for a third of the U.S. auto market.

“This decision takes the U.S. auto industry backward, and we will vigorously defend the existing clean vehicle standards and fight to preserve one national clean vehicle program,” Nichols said in a statement. “California will not weaken its nationally accepted clean car standards, and automakers will continue to meet those higher standards, bringing better gas mileage and less pollution for everyone.”

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra threatened legal action. “We’re ready to file suit if needed to protect these critical standards and to fight the Administration’s war on our environment,” he said in a statement. “California didn’t become the sixth-largest economy in the world by spectating.”

But Gloria Bergquist, vice president of communications and public affairs for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which lobbies for major carmakers in Washington, said the EPA made the right decision.

“We support the administration for pursuing a data-driven effort and a single national program as it works to finalize future standards,” she said. “We appreciate that the administration is working to find a way to both increase fuel economy standards and keep new vehicles affordable to more Americans.”

Peter Welch, president and CEO of the National Automobile Dealers Association, which represents franchised car dealership owners, said regulators have to keep in mind the impact of fuel economy standards on the overall cost of cars.

“Standards alone – whatever they are – won’t do the trick,” he said. “But smart standards that maintain affordability and encourage fleet turnover will help maximize the number of cleaner, safer and more fuel-efficient vehicles we get on the road every year.”

The fuel-economy rules were enacted in 2012 and began taking effect with the 2017 model year. They called 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.

The average fuel economy of cars and trucks hit a record 24.7 miles per gallon for the 2016 model year, the EPA reported in January. It was expected to rise to 25.2 miles per gallon for 2017. The report measured fuel economy in real driving conditions, which is less than the official EPA figures on window stickers.

The CAFE rules, intended to reduce dependence on foreign oil and reduce greenhouse gases, 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 Obama administration’s mileage rules for the models years between 2017 and 2021 were locked in place by a 2012 agreement between the former president and almost every major automaker. The first half of the mileage increase required an average of over 35 miles per gallon for 2017 models. The mileage rules then called for automakers to achieve a fleetwide average mileage rate of more than 36 miles per gallon for cars and trucks in 2018. The standard increases to more than 37 miles per gallon in 2019 and nearly 39 miles per gallon in 2020.

Under the Obama administration’s rules, automakers would have faced 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 were allowed to purchase credits from other auto companies that have come in under the mileage requirements to cover pollution deficits.

Environmental and consumer advocates accused the Trump administration of acting on behalf of carmakers instead of drivers and ignoring concerns about air quality.

“Rolling back these standards means more dangerous pollution will be pumped into the air Michigan families breathe every day,” Lisa Wozniak, executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement.

David Friedman, director of cars and products policy and analysis for Consumers Union, said the Trump administration’s decision “defies the robust record and years of review that show these targets are reasonable and appropriate.”

“Undermining these consumer protections,” he said, “will cost consumers more at the pump while fulfilling the wishes of the auto industry.”


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Twitter: @Keith_Laing