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Gas-mileage debate rolls into Dearborn

Keith Laing
The Detroit News

Washington — The auto industry and others will have a chance to weigh in on the Trump administration’s proposal to relax gas mileage rules at a hearing Tuesday in the hometown of one of Detroit's carmakers. 

The U.S. Department of Transportation and Environmental Protection Agency are planning three public hearings that will include a stop in Dearborn, home of Ford Motor Co.

The hearing will gather input on the Trump administration’s proposal to freeze Obama-era gas mileage rules that would have required automakers to produce fleets averaging more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025.

The hearing will gather input on the Trump administration’s proposal to freeze Obama-era gas mileage rules that would have required automakers to produce fleets averaging more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025.

The Dearborn hearing will take place at the Dearborn Inn on Oakwood Boulevard at 10 a.m. Tuesday. Additional hearings will take place in Fresno, Calif., on Monday, and Pittsburgh on Sept. 26. 

The agencies have proposed freezing the mandate after the 2020 model year, when automakers will be required to build fleets averaging about 39 miles per gallon fleet wide. They have also indicated the federal government could move to revoke a longstanding waiver allowing California and other states to set their own stricter auto emissions standards.

Speakers had to sign up at least 10 days in advance to be included on the agenda for the hearings. No decisions will be made on the final gas mileage rules, but this is the chance for the auto industry and other interested parties to weigh in on the record on the Trump administration's gas-mileage proposal.  

Ford, General Motors Co., and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles N.V. did not respond to requests for comment on their plans for the hearings in Dearborn and the other locations.

A list of speakers has not been released. The government has received nearly 1,200 written comments on the proposals.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which lobbies for most major automakers — domestic and foreign — said Chris Nevers, its vice president of energy and environment, will testify at the hearing in Dearborn on Tuesday. The group said Steve Douglas, its senior director of environmental affairs, will testify in Fresno. 

Gloria Bergquist, vice president of communications and public affairs for the auto alliance, said the officials will tell Trump administration representatives that "climate change is real and automakers are taking action," but also that "future standards must account for marketplace realities like consumer acceptance."

Bergquist said in an email that the group wants one national mileage standard: "We urge the federal government and California to find a common-sense solution that sets continued increases in standards while meeting the needs of America’s drivers."

California, which sets its own emissions standards under a waiver included in the 1970 Clean Air Act, has shown no signs of backing away from a fight. The state spearheaded a lawsuit filed with with 16 other states in May that argued the Trump administration move to reverse the Obama-era gas mileage rules is "unlawful."

"California will fight this stupidity in every conceivable way possible," California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, tweeted when the Trump administration's proposal was released in August. 

A dozen other states and the District of Columbia have adopted California's emission rules, accounting for one-third of the U.S. auto market.

Rebecca Lindland, senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book, said the auto industry is likely to press regulators for one set of rules for the whole country. "The industry is fairly consistent in its message, which is they want one one standard for fuel economy," she said.

That means the EPA and NHTSA coming to an agreement that California and the California Air Resources will accept. "They want to avoid a patchwork of fuel economy regulations, which makes it more difficult to produce cars, but also more difficult to buy them," she said.

Lindland said car buyers could bear the brunt of a lengthy legal battle between the Trump administration and California over fuel-economy standards.  "If you find a vehicle online in another state, maybe that state doesn't agree with your state's regulations and you can't buy it," she said. 

The current Corporate Average Fuel Economy rules at issue call for ramping up from the current fleet-wide average of about 35 mpg for cars and trucks to an eventual goal of between 50 and 52.6 mpg by 2025. The goal was revised down from an initial target of 54.5 mpg, which equates to roughly 40 mpg in real-world driving.

Under the Obama administration’s 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 carmakers — like electric-car company Tesla — that come in under the mileage requirements.

Environmentalists have decried the Trump administration's efforts to roll back the Obama administration's proposed gas mileage rules. They see it as a further unraveling of Obama's environmental legacy that could accelerate global warming. 

“The Trump administration’s move to gut these clean-car standards is bad news for Michigan,” said Luke Tonachel, director of the clean vehicles and fuels project at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It would mean a hit to drivers’ wallets, fewer innovative jobs in the state, and more air pollution.”

Tonachel will testify Tuesday. The group also plans to send lawyers to Fresno.

Lindland said automakers have made great strides in improving fuel economy, but she said car buyers have demonstrated clear preferences for trucks and SUVs instead of the most fuel-efficient small cars. Drivers, she said, want the most fuel-efficient version of what they already want to buy. 

"Cleaning up the environment is not just the onus of manufacturers, consumers have some responsibility too," she said. "If we saw more demand for zero-emission cars, it would be easier to justify the expense of building them." 

Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles were considered as possible hearing locations, but the agencies opted instead for Pittsburgh and Fresno. Pittsburgh is a hub of self-driving testing, and the hearing there will provide a chance for companies that have been conducting such research to weigh in. The Fresco hearing is expected to draw protests from environmentalists and California elected officials.

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing