The long-anticipated move by the White House to roll back automobile fuel-efficiency targets set by the Obama Administration and to challenge the right of California and other states to set stricter tailpipe emission rules than the federal government faces an uphill climb on both the regulatory and the judicial front.
Coming in the form of a notice of proposed rulemaking jointly issued by the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on August 2, the regulatory revision seeks “to amend certain existing Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) and greenhouse gas emissions standards for passenger cars and light trucks and establish new standards, covering model years 2021 through 2026.”
Officially designated the Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient Vehicles Rule for Model Years 2021-2026 Passenger Cars and Light Trucks (SAFE Vehicles Rule), EPA and NHTSA stated that the proposal is the next generation of the congressionally mandated Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) and Light-Duty Vehicle Greenhouse Gas Emissions Standards.
The agencies said the joint NPPRM is the “first formal step” in setting the 2021-2026 Model Year (MY) standards that must be achieved by each automaker for its car and light-duty truck offerings.
“We are delivering on President Trump’s promise to the American public that his administration would address and fix the current fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions standards,” said EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler in a statement. “Our proposal aims to strike the right regulatory balance based on the most recent information and create a 50-state solution that will enable more Americans to afford newer, safer vehicles that pollute less. More realistic standards can save lives while continuing to improve the environment. We value the public’s input as we engage in this process in an open, transparent manner.”
EPA and NHTSA are seeking public comment on various related regulatory options, including what they term “a preferred alternative that locks in MY 2020 standards through 2026, providing a much-needed timeout from further, costly [MPG] increases." The agencies said this option would “prevent thousands of on-road fatalities and injuries as compared to the standards set forth in the 2012 final rule,” which predisposes that automakers would build lighter vehicles to drive up their MPG ratings.
The Trump administration claims that modifying the car standards would both reduce accidents and the cost of buying new cars.
“The current standards have been a factor in the rising cost of new automobiles to an average of $35,000 or more — out of reach for many American families,” EPA and NHTSA stated. In addition, the agencies contend that a 2018 study by NHTSA “shows new model year vehicles are safer, resulting in fewer deaths and injuries when involved in accidents, as compared to older models. Therefore, the administration is focused on correcting the current standards that restrict the American people from being able to afford newer vehicles with more advanced safety features, better fuel economy, and associated environmental benefits.”
While the proposed changes to the light-duty tailpipe emissions standards will be challenged by a wide array of stakeholder groups during the rulemaking process, the proposal to strip environmental front-runner California from continuing to set its own stricter fuel economy and emissions standards for passenger cars and light trucks will be fiercely contested in court – and could have implications for heavy-duty truck emissions rules.
In a case of politics making strange bedfellows, a range of environmental advocacy, consumer protection, and auto industry stakeholder groups along with state attorneys general have already come out loud and clear against moving forward with the proposed rule changes.
The American Trucking Associations is also weighing in. “EPA’s announcement to lock in the 2020 light-duty fuel economy standards until 2026 will face a long litigious road if the agency and the 13 states and the District of Columbia that support increased light-duty fuel economy standards can’t resolve their differences,” ATA press secretary and vice president of pubilic affairs Sean McNally told HDT.
Noting that the Phase 2 truck GHG/MOG rules are not part of this proposed roll back, McNally added that “our industry will be carefully following developments on this matter, as they closely parallel heavy-duty vehicle issues such as California’s waiver authority, regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, and the underlying ‘endangerment’ finding that concludes greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles endanger both public health and welfare.”
Last year, as reported by The New York Times, automakers asked President Trump to loosen the Obama administration MPG/GHG rules, but have since asked him not to roll them as far back as this proposal does. And no one doubts that California -- and the states that adopt the Golden State's emissions rules-- are prepared to sue the federal government to retain California’s waiver authority, which is allowed under the Clean Air Act.
Already, California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. (D), California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, and California Air Resources Board Chair Mary D. Nichols have announced their “strong opposition to the proposed rule from the Trump administration that would eviscerate the current greenhouse gas emission standards for model year 2021-2026 vehicles and put in place weakened emission and fuel efficiency standards at the expense of public health, the economy, and the environment.”
The California leaders’ statement also declared that for the federal government to withdraw the waiver granted to California for the state’s own GHG emissions standards and zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) programs would be “an unprecedented and unlawful action that flies in the face of congressional intent and would aggravate the harms to consumers, public health, and the environment caused by the weakening of the federal standards. The administration proposal would also block the many other states that use California standards from moving forward.”
Making their position as clear as day, Gov. Brown said that “California will fight this stupidity in every conceivable way possible.”
Among the many other stakeholder groups pledging to stop the rollback is the Environmental Defense Fund. “The Trump administration’s proposal to slam the brakes on America’s successful Clean Car Standards is a massive pileup of bad ideas,” said EDF President Fred Krupp. “It’s a proposal that attacks the states’ right to protect people from dangerous pollution, one that no one – not the American public, not the states, not even most automakers – really wants, and one that’s being presented to the public under the false and easily discredited guise of improving public safety.”
He added that EDF will “oppose this proposal in the court of public opinion and the court of law, and will work to secure protective Clean Car Standards for all Americans.”
EPA has stated it will open a docket for submittal of public comments for 60 days upon publication of the proposed rule in the Federal Register. But comments may already be submitted at www.regulations.gov by referencing Docket EPA-HQ-OAR-2018-0283.