POLITICS
03/15/2017 05:01 am ET Updated Mar 15, 2017

White House Set To Scrap EPA Assessment Of Fuel Efficiency Standards

Automakers can breathe a little easier, even if no one else can.

President Donald Trump unveiled plans on Wednesday to toss out the Environmental Protection Agency’s latest assessment of new fuel efficiency standards for the auto industry. 

At an event with auto executives in a Detroit suburb, Trump announced his administration’s decision to restart a review of the cost of new fuel efficiency rules that would require vehicles to average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, nearly double today’s standard. The Obama administration moved to lock in the rules by issuing the EPA’s positive assessment of the costs and feasibility of the regulations more than a year early, in January.

“We are going to cancel that executive action,” Trump said. “We are going to restore the originally scheduled midterm review.” 

A senior White House official had confirmed the long-expected announcement to reporters on Tuesday night.

“The auto industry rightly cried foul because we were supposed to do [the assessment] in 2018,” the official said.

In his speech, Trump said the “assault on the American auto industry, believe me, is over.” He did not mention the roughly $80 billion government bailout package the industry received after the financial crisis.

Trump’s announcement does not affect the waiver granted to California under the Clean Air Act to set fuel efficiency above the federal standard. 

“When 2018 comes around, we have to work with California to figure it out,” the official said, adding that withdrawing the waiver was not under consideration “right now.”

The chief executives of General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles attended the event, along with officials from several Japanese and German automakers. Trump has put intense pressure on automakers to keep manufacturing jobs in the U.S. Reassessing a rule that has long nettled the industry is part of that push. 

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In 2012, automakers agreed to the first major overhaul of fuel efficiency standards since the 1970s ― on the condition that, by April 2018, the EPA and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would perform a thorough review of rules and tweak them if they were too expensive or impossible to meet.

In a move to block incoming EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, an oil industry ally who rejects the scientific consensus on manmade global warming, from undoing the rules, the EPA announced its findings ahead of schedule. Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy issued a final determination on Jan. 12 finding that “automakers are well positioned to meet the standards at lower costs than previously estimated.”

NHTSA, which is under the Department of Transportation, traditionally oversees fuel efficiency standards. But the Supreme Court’s 2007 decision in Massachusetts v. EPA requires the EPA to set global warming pollution standards for vehicles under the Clean Air Act.

The Trump administration plans to give NHTSA’s analysis more weight in next year’s assessment, essentially downgrading the priority given to environmental and climate concerns in the regulatory process. Unlike the EPA, the Department of Transportation ― overseen by Elaine Chao, a longtime coal industry backer and the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) ― does not have an explicit mission to keep toxic pollution out of the air.

The move appears to be in line with what Pruitt described as his philosophical approach to his new job: that “regulations exist to give certainty to those they regulate.”

But environmentalists fear that an assessment in 2018 will result in scrapping the new standards.

“This is no time to shift cleaner car standards into reverse,” Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president for government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement. “These commonsense clean cars standards are already doing their job to protect consumers, protect our health and climate, and reduce our oil consumption.” 

President Trump’s policy is short-sighted. American automakers will succeed if their companies move forward with technological innovation and build the cars of the future to create the jobs of the future. Howard Learner, Environmental Law & Policy Center

Some critics feared that relaxing standards would destroy auto industry jobs in the long term as foreign rivals increase fuel efficiency. 

“We’ve seen this story before in the 1970s, when the American auto industry was building gas-guzzlers and Japanese carmakers ate them for lunch,” Howard Learner, executive director of the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center, told The Huffington Post by phone on Wednesday. “President Trump’s policy is short-sighted. American automakers will succeed if their companies move forward with technological innovation and build the cars of the future to create the jobs of the future.”

In January, Ford announced plans to spend $700 million to add 700 workers to a plant in Flat Rock, Michigan. The company said it wanted to focus its efforts in the U.S. as it invests in new technologies, including electric vehicles, sales of which could suffer under weaker efficiency rules. 

The governors of Washington and Oregon condemned the move on Wednesday in a joint statement signed by the mayors of Oakland, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. 

“The U.S. is a technology superpower. Our strong vehicle fuel economy standards are a reflection of that and position the U.S. to remain competitive in the global push toward clean cars,” they wrote. “Let’s not cede our leadership.”

The White House would not necessarily give deference to auto manufacturers when the full review is conducted next year, the official said. But he pointed reporters to an assessment by an industry-funded group that challenged the feasibility of Obama’s more stringent standards.

“Go read the Auto Alliance assessment,” he said. “It’s a pretty comprehensive assessment.”

The conservative Heartland Institute said it expects the new review will ultimately reject the Obama administration’s findings. It hailed the announcement as a victory for automakers, oil producers and mineral miners. 

“[W]hen consumers are free to choose the vehicles of their choice, domestic oil demand will increase,” Bette Grande, an energy policy research fellow at the think tank, said in a statement. “So much winning, I think I’ll take my truck for a spin to celebrate.” 

This article was updated to include portions of Trump’s speech and comment from Howard Learner and Bette Grande.

HuffPost

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