Draft plan relaxing car GHG controls called ‘outrageous’

Source: Sean Reilly, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, October 22, 2015

At a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing yesterday, there was no disagreement that auto safety is a good thing. But angry divisions emerged over a Republican plan to give carmakers a break on greenhouse gas emission requirements in return for making more use of innovative safety features.

“I think it is outrageous,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said in an tense exchange with Mitch Bainwol, head of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a leading industry trade group.

When Bainwol sought to interject that anti-crash technologies would help reduce accidents caused by driver mistakes, Schakowsky cut him off. “What are you talking about?” she asked.

“We are talking about maximizing and accelerating the deployment of life-saving technologies,” Bainwol said. “Exactly,” Schakowsky retorted, “and doing it in a way that increases auto emissions.”

The hearing in the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade marked a strained start to the process of reauthorizing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The panel was not considering a formal bill yesterday but a “discussion draft” of legislation that, according to a staff memo, would prepare the agency “for the next generation of vehicles and innovation in the auto industry.”

NHTSA has been under fire for failing to adequately police the auto industry. It is clear that “there are areas ripe for improvement,” subcommittee Chairman Michael Burgess (R-Texas) said at the outset of the hearing.

But Schakowsky, the subcommittee’s ranking member, and other Democrats objected that putting clean air standards into play wasn’t the way to get the job done. In the wake of Volkswagen’s emissions cheating scandal, “I am alarmed that Congress would even consider giving automakers a way around environmental regulations,” said Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the full Energy committee.

The proposed incentives would grant manufacturers credits for greenhouse gas emissions of at least 3 grams per mile on new cars and light-duty trucks outfitted with three or more “advanced automotive technologies,” a category that includes forward collision warnings and driver attention monitors. The starting point would be the 2018 model year. Automakers could reap another 6 grams in credits for installing “connected vehicle” technology that’s also intended to make driving safer.

In his prepared testimony, Bainwol called the proposed incentives “modest” and said they will hasten the spread of technologies “that enhance safety and/or reduce congestion, and thereby reduce automotive greenhouse gas emissions.”

But in a Tuesday letter to the committee, the Safe Climate Campaign, the Sierra Club and a half-dozen other organizations said car manufacturers are already installing many of the safety features covered by the draft bill and urged the panel to drop the language.

Nationwide, the credits could wipe out an entire year’s worth of reductions in tailpipe emissions, Greg Dotson, vice president for energy policy at the Center for American Progress, said at yesterday’s hearing. Dotson also noted a separate provision that could cost California — which has been particularly aggressive in attempting to curb greenhouse gas releases — the right to impose its own vehicle emission standards.

In an email to E&E Daily, a spokesman for the California Air Resources Board termed the bill “an underhanded way to undermine vehicle pollution reductions.”

More sympathetic to the auto industry was Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-Ky.), who said carmakers are spending heavily to meet fuel efficiency standards and safety requirements.

“If you can give relief in one area to get safety and security first, I think that’s important,'” Guthrie added.

How quickly the full Energy committee will try to move ahead with a bill is unclear. In his opening statement, however, Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) invited feedback “on how we can improve the legislation.”