Trump Administration Officially Proposes Rolling Back Clean Car Standards


In a long expected move, the Trump administration announced Thursday morning that it is proposing to weaken the Obama-era clean car emissions and fuel efficiency standards, and that it will seek to limit California’s authority to set tougher standards.

The proposal, first reported last week, comes from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and suggests freezing fuel economy targets at 2020 levels through 2026, along with a number of other less-preferred options.

As importantly, the proposal will open up public comment on whether the EPA can revoke California’s waiver under the Clean Air Act, which allows the state to set its own greenhouse gas standards from tailpipe emissions. In the history of the Clean Air Act, a waiver that has previously been granted to California has never been revoked.

Significantly, the only time a waiver request has been denied to California was by William (Bill) Wehrum, who is now serving in the same role as assistant administrator for air and radiation at the EPA, as he was in the George W. Bush EPA that first denied California’s request. At the time, Wehrum argued that states were preempted from setting their own emissions standards.

Email from Bill Wehrum to EPA staff justifying the EPA‘s unprecendented denial of California’s Clean Air Act waiver request in 2006.  Credit: Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

In a call with reporters on Thursday, he pushed the preemption argument again. “There’s pretty strong evidence that Congress intended the federal government to be the primary regulator here,” Wehrum said. “All of us want one national program. It makes no sense to have a two-car world where certain cars have to be sold in one part of the country and other cars have to be sold in another part of the country … So we’re going to try to work it out.”

Wehrum also argued on the call that rolling back the standards would actually improve overall fleetwide emissions levels, by lowering costs of new vehicles. The proposal has “everything to do with just trying to turn over the fleet … and get more clean and safe cars on the road,” said Wehrum.

This echoes a talking point used repeatedly by the powerful Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers (or Auto Alliance) trade group, which counts Toyota, Ford, General Motors, Fiat Chrysler, BMW, Mercedes, and Volkswagen among its members. The Auto Alliance, which was publicly calling for these standards to be weakened before claiming that they didn’t want a rollback, had relied on cherry-picked data and outright climate denial while lobbying for regulatory relief.

The revocation of California’s waiver would be fulfilling the wishes of many conservative organizations with close ties to the Koch brothers and Koch Industries.

As DeSmog has previously reported:

“In April, the American Consumer Institute (ACI) organized a letter to then EPA administrator Scott Pruitt calling ‘for the revocation of California’s waiver from the Clean Air Act, which allows the state to decouple from federal policy and impose strict emission standards on automobiles.’

Eight of the eleven groups that signed the ACI letter have clear financial or organizational ties to the Koch network, including the Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA), FreedomWorks, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), and Americans for Tax Reform.

In May, three former members of President Trump’s transition teams — all of whom work or worked with Koch-funded and Koch-founded organizations — sent the president another letter, which also argued for the EPA to withdraw California’s legislated right to set its own tailpipe emissions standards.

As DeSmog reported at the time, that ‘letter was signed by Tom Pyle of the Institute for Energy Research (IER), Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and Shirley Ybarra, a former fellow at the Reason Foundation. All three organizations have close Koch ties, and Pyle was himself a lobbyist for Koch Industries, the petrochemical empire privately owned by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.’”

Unsurprisingly, Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute was quick to applaud the proposal, calling it “good news for consumers.” Ebell added, “Even better news is the decision to take California out of the driver’s seat for setting CAFE standards for the entire country. Letting one state make decisions for people in other states makes a bad program even worse, especially since the state is California, which has been pursuing an anti-car agenda for decades.”

‘This is a Stupid Policy’ and Other Reactions

Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger called out the “stupid, fake-conservative policy” in a statement on Twitter:

Other reactions were no more charitable, if slightly more civil. Some cast doubt on the scientific and economic bases of the proposal. “I don’t believe the administration has any solid engineering or economic ground to stand on,” said John DeCicco, an engineer and autos expert at University of Michigan Energy Institute.  “It is basically political opportunism.”

Others have criticized the administration’s argument that the proposed rollbacks will make cars safer. “The federal government’s own data shows that when managed properly for vehicle footprints, lightweighting and fuel economy rules don’t undermine highway safety,” said Robbie Diamond, president of Securing America’s Future Energy, in a statement. “Saving lives while saving fuel can be accomplished simultaneously.”

Others pointed to the potential illegality of the actions. UCLA environmental law professor Ann Carlson wrote Thursday, “The arguments about cost and safety are makeweights designed to provide cover for a proposal that is likely to be struck down in court.”

There is no precedent for revoking California’s waiver,” said Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign of the Center for Auto Safety. “There is no provision in the Clean Air Act for revoking a waiver … The world is looking to California to hold its ground.”

This legal uncertainty is ultimately bad for the auto industry, argued Irene Gutierrez of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “If their goal is to create a landscape where industry has regulatory certainty, they are not going to achieve that goal.”

A Long Road of Legal Challenges Ahead

Ultimately, the “Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule for Model Years 2021-2026 Passenger Cars and Light Trucks” proposal represents Andrew Wheeler‘s first prominent regulatory rollback attempt since assuming the position of acting EPA chief after Scott Pruitt’s resignation in July.

However, to be clear, the action taken by the Trump administration on Thursday was a proposal, not a final rule, a point that White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders emphasized Thursday afternoon. “The reporting that we’re reversing Obama-era fuel efficiency standards and pre-empting the tougher California standards is simply false,” she said. “What the EPA released yesterday was a notice of proposed rulemaking, not a final rule. The notice lays out a series of options for how to go forward with [corporate average fuel economy] standards, and the notice asks for comments on the range of options. We’re simply opening it up for a comment period, and we’ll make a final decision at the end of that.”

After the proposal was released, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra immediately announced plans to lead at least 18* other state attorneys general in a lawsuit against the Trump administration.

“The Trump Administration has launched a brazen attack, no matter how it is cloaked, on our nation’s clean car standards,” Becerra said in a statement. “The California Department of Justice will use every legal tool at its disposal to defend today’s national standards and reaffirm the facts and science behind them.”

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, who will join Becerra’s lawsuit, called the proposal “absolutely one of the most harmful and dumbest actions that the EPA has taken. It’s going to cost drivers here and across the country hundreds of millions of dollars more at the pump.” She added, “The EPA has handed decision making over to the fossil fuel lobbyists … the flat-Earthers, the climate change deniers.”

Updated 8/2/18 to reflect the latest number of states planning to join California’s lawsuit.

Main image: President Donald Trump sits in the driver’s seat of a semi-truck as he welcomes truckers and CEOs to the White House March 23, 2017. Credit: Official White House photo by Benjamin Applebaum, public domain

Ben Jervey is a Senior Fellow for DeSmog and directs the project. He is a freelance writer, editor, and researcher, specializing in climate change and energy systems and policy. Ben is also a Research Fellow at the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School. He was the original Environment Editor for GOOD Magazine, and wrote a longstanding weekly column titled “The New Ideal: Building the clean energy economy of the 21st Century and avoiding the worst fates of climate change.” He has also contributed regularly to National Geographic News, Grist, and OnEarth Magazine. He has published three books—on eco-friendly living in New York City, an Energy 101 primer, and, most recently, “The Electric Battery: Charging Forward to a Low Carbon Future.” He graduated with a BA in Environmental Studies from Middlebury College, and earned a Master’s in Energy Regulation and Law at Vermont Law School. A bicycle enthusiast, Ben has ridden across the United States and through much of Europe.

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