Trump administration moves to finalize fuel-economy rollback

Keith Laing
The Detroit News

Washington — The Trump administration is moving forward with a plan to roll back stringent gas-mileage rules enacted by the Obama administration. 

The administration has submitted its final version of its plan to the White House Office of Management and Budget for a final review. Details have not been made public yet, but it is expected to call for reducing the required annual fleetwide average mpg increases for carmakers for model years 2021-2026 from the original 5% to a less stringent 1.5%

An earlier portion of the plan that called for revoking California's right to set higher car emissions rules than the federal government currently mandates was put forth by the Trump administration last September. 

The White House finalized its plan to roll back stringent gas-mileage rules enacted by the Obama administration on Tuesday.

The Trump administration had initially proposed a freeze in gas mileage rates at 2020 levels until 2026, but it is retrenching slightly to the current proposed 1.5% annual increases. Environmentalists argue the Trump proposal would be a far cry from the the large hikes enacted by the Obama administration.

NHTSA said in a statement: "While the draft will not become public until OMB completes the review and the rule is published, EPA and NHTSA firmly believe this rule will benefit all Americans by improving the U.S. fleet’s fuel economy, reducing air pollution, helping make new vehicles more affordable for all Americans.

"And because new vehicles are safer than ever, the standards set by the SAFE Vehicles Final Rule will ultimately save thousands of lives and reduce the number of Americans seriously injured in car crashes," the agency continued.

Carmakers had asked the Trump administration to take another look at fuel-economy rules. Those Obama-era standards would have required automakers to increase fleetwide fuel economy by about 5% annually toward a goal of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. The Obama administration moved to finalize the rules ahead of schedule after Trump's 2016 victory, setting off a chain of events that has led to the current dispute.

Trump went beyond what most automakers were seeking by proposing a freeze that would lock in mpg rates until 2026 at 2020 levels, when carmakers would be required to produce fleets that average about 39 miles per gallon.

California, which helped craft the Obama-era rules, sued over the rollback and has promised to also sue over the revocation of its right to set its own more-stringent mpg requirements. The nation's largest state accounts for 12% of the U.S. auto market. Thirteen states and Washington, D.C., have adopted California’s gas mileage rules.

Ford angered the White House in July when it reached an agreement with California to voluntarily increase the average fuel economy of their fleets from 2021 levels by 3.7% per year, reaching an average of nearly 50 mpg by 2026. Volkswagen, Honda and BMW were also part of that agreement. The U.S. Department of Justice launched an antitrust investigation.

The U.S. auto industry achieved a record average of 24.9 mpg in the 2017 model year in "real world" testing, according to the most recent figures that have been made available by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The mark flew well short of the Obama-era requirement that they achieve a fleetwide average of 29.3 miles-per-gallon. Preliminary data showed automakers are likely to achieve an industry-wide average of only 25.4 miles per-gallon for 2018, which would fall short of the 30.6 miles-per-gallon milepost for that year. The 2018 figure will be confirmed by the EPA in the spring. 

Ford, GM and Fiat Chrysler ranked 11th, 12th and 13th respectively among 13 manufacturers who were measured in 2017. Ford and GM fleets averaged 22.9 miles per gallon, while Fiat Chrysler averaged 21.2. 

Honda Motor Corp. led all automakers for 2017 with an average of 29.4 miles per gallon for its fleet, followed by Mazda Motor Corp. with 29 mpg and Hyundai Motor Co. with 28.6 mpg.

Environmentalists and consumer advocacy groups in Washington sharply criticized the Trump administration for moving to relax the rules.

"The Trump administration keeps trying to manufacture a reason to gut these commonsense, existing tailpipe standards — but there isn’t one," Luke Tonachel, director of clean vehicles and fuels at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said. 

Tonachel said Trump's plan would likely "result in a dramatic rollback, with huge increases in pollution, massive job losses and billions of dollars in added costs to consumers." 

Shannon Baker–Branstetter, energy policy counsel for Consumer Reports, added: "The first phase of this rule attacked the Clean Air Act by trying to strip states of their right to maintain or adopt stronger clean-car standards. The second phase is expected to roll back national fuel economy and [greenhouse gas] emissions standards, and whether this final rule from EPA and NHTSA flat-lines or near flat-lines the standards, this move will cost consumers thousands of dollars per vehicle."


Twitter: @Keith_Laing