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Photo: Maurizio Pesce / Flickr

Environmental advocates are charging up for battle with President Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is expected to weaken fuel economy standards for cars and light-duty trucks.

The automotive industry encouraged the Trump administration to reconsider the EPA’s Final Determination that set a 51.4 mile per gallon (MPG) average target for passenger vehicles made in model year 2025, which the industry claims to be exorbitantly costly. In his confirmation hearing, Scott Pruitt, the new head of the EPA, alluded to his intention to renegotiate the regulations that will lay the roadwork for fuel efficiency standards in the years to come.

Emissions regulations for passenger vehicles are fundamental to America’s climate policy and are on the road to making significant reductions in transportation-related emissions. Can Trump’s anti-environmental agenda derail years of climate progress? Or will current policies and California’s strong stand for eco-vehicles keep America’s transportation sector rolling towards sustainability?

A Brief History

In the 2007 Massachusetts v. EPA case, the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA — in accordance with the Clean Air Act (CAA) — could regulate greenhouse gases from automobiles because of their harmful effects on human health and wellbeing.

Previously, the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) regulated fuel efficiency standards, the EPA enforced pollution limits and California set its own more stringent standards. The three separate governing authorities created a patchwork system and regulatory uncertainty.

In 2009, the Obama Administration’s EPA in conjunction with the NHTSA and the California Air and Resources Board (CARB) kicked emissions standards into a higher gear and negotiated with the auto industry to create a uniform National Program to regulate emissions from light-duty vehicles in model years 2012 to 2016.

Building upon the National Program, the EPA and NHTSA created the 2017 and Later Model Year Light-Duty Vehicle Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Corporate Average Fuel Economy Standards. This ruling established a target for car companies to meet a passenger vehicle fleet average of 54.5 miles per gallon by model year 2025. The standards also include a midterm evaluation in 2017 intended to assess the appropriateness of the standards moving forward.

A week before Obama left office, the EPA released the Final Determination on the Appropriateness of the Model Year 2022-2025 Light-Duty Vehicle Greenhouse Gas Emissions Standards under the Midterm Evaluation and deemed that, based on a 2016 review, a 51.4 mpg fleet wide target for model year 2025 was achievable, which would correspond with an estimated 36 mpg real-world average.

Between 2022 and 2025, experts expect the fuel efficiency measures will offset consumption of 1.2 billion barrels of oil, avoid half a billion metric tons of CO2 emissions, reduce consumer expenditure at the pump and save American’s a collective $100 billion in health and environmental benefits.

Automakers have “easily exceeded the fuel efficiency standards every year since 2012. There is no reason to think it cannot continue to do so,” wrote Jody Freeman, a Harvard Law professor and a member of the negotiating team that helped establish the National Program. However, with the industry-friendly Trump administration in office, car manufacturers are putting pressure on the EPA to relax regulations.

Automotive Industry Stance

The Association of Global Automakers and the Alliance of Automobile manufacturers, which collectively represent over 20 of America’s most driven cars including Ford, Honda, Toyota, Volkswagen, Mercedes, BMW and more, each sent a letter on February 21s to Scott Pruitt requesting the EPA “withdraw” and “reconsider” the Determination.

Essentially, the industry lobbying groups argue that the EPA raced the Determination through before Trump took office without paying due diligence to a previously agreed upon evaluation that would allow for a longer comment period and assess “the costs and effectiveness of the technologies needed to meet the standards.”

In recent years, car companies have seen record high sales. And with low gas prices and post-recession growth, consumers have been demanding larger gas-guzzlers like SUVs and trucks. Although electric vehicles and hybrid vehicles sales have been increasing, they still only make up less than 4 percent of the U.S. market.

The Alliance’s letter argued that the Determination “is riddled with indefensible assumptions, inadequate analysis, and a failure to engage the contrary evidence.” Specifically, industry representatives claim the EPA underestimates the cost of compliance for automakers at $200 billion and lacks robust consumer acceptance data. Therefore, they argue that increased costs due to investments in electronic and hybrid technology would lead to decreased sales, which in turn would lead to a loss of jobs and ultimately “low-income households would be hit the hardest.”

When the National Program was established, automakers were happy to have regulatory certainty that would shape investment decisions and automobile offerings. Is the industry crying about the cost of compliance and hoping that the Trump Administration will oil their engines by giving them a break on emissions standards?

Also of note, some automakers, like Toyota and Honda, rolled out successful fuel-efficient vehicles and could arguably have a competitive advantage — why would they support the reversal of the Determination?

“EPA jumped the gun and prejudged the outcome of this review before it was complete,” a Toyota spokesperson told Planet Experts via email. “The only way to undo EPAs premature decision is to ‘reverse’ the decision and get the review back on track. Reversing the EPA Final Determination does not roll back, remove, weaken or change the standards in any way. It simply allows the process of reviewing the standards to proceed as originally intended.”

Although the reversal wouldn’t make any official changes, we can be sure that the auto industry isn’t honking their horns for stricter standards.

California and the Road Ahead

A key roadblock for the auto industry and the Trump Administration is the fact that California has over 100 waivers from the EPA that allow the state to set its own more stringent vehicle emissions standards under CAA section 209. So far, 13 other states and the District of Columbia have adopted California’s Advanced Clean Cars Program.

“At this point, we have standards that are in place through 2025 and we have reason to believe they will stay in place,” Dave Clegern, public information officer at CARB, told Planet Experts. “We don’t know what they are going to do. There’s a lot of speculation out there and we don’t care to add to it.”

Regardless of what happens on a federal level, the Golden State has no plans of pulling a policy U-turn. California is “vigorously ready to defend ourselves,” said Mary Nichols, chair of CARB. In preparation, the state retained erstwhile U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to steer it through any legal battles that may ensue.

Technically speaking, the “EPA cannot roll back any part of California’s Clean Cars program overnight,” Irene Gutierrez, an attorney representing the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Energy and Transportation program, told Planet Experts.  If the EPA attempts to change either the Final Determination or California’s waiver to set its own emissions standards under the Clean Cars program, it would have to undergo a public process, which could take months or years, explained Gutierrez.

“Further, there shouldn’t be any overnight changes to other states’ use of California’s standards, which amounts to about one-third of the U.S. auto market,” assured the lawyer.

There may still be some potholes on the road leading to a low-carbon American transportation sector. While Pruitt and the EPA are likely to give federal fuel efficiency standards a flat tire, which will cause disjointed emissions standards and regulatory uncertainty for the auto industry, California and other environmentally minded states’ batteries are charged and ready to push the country towards a more sustainable future.

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