EPA to broaden review of tailpipe standards

Source: Camille von Kaenel, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, August 9, 2017

U.S. EPA is set to announce that it will reconsider vehicle greenhouse gas emission standards for model years 2021 to 2025 a year earlier than previously anticipated, sources told E&E News.

President Trump announced in March he would consider lowering the standards following automaker pressure, reversing his predecessor’s decision to finalize the targets through 2025.

The review sets up a battle with California, which has vowed to plow ahead with stringent rules under an agreement with the federal government that the new administration could revoke.

EPA’s upcoming notice will also reopen the regulatory docket to take in additional information on consumer preferences and market trends, as automakers have requested.

The reconsideration of the 2021 standards — first reported by Inside EPA — comes as a surprise to advocates and companies, which have started planning cars to comply with the target already on the books.

In 2009, automakers agreed to the Obama administration’s rules, which would bring the average fleetwide fuel economy to between 50 and 52.6 mpg in 2025.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which sets fuel economy standards in parallel to EPA, announced late last month it was reconsidering its 2021 mandate as part of its scheduled rulemaking for model years 2022 to 2025 (E&E News PM, July 25).

‘Justification will be difficult’

Legal challenges to a lowering of the 2021 standards would be swift and robust, say administration critics. “It’s straight out of ‘The Art of the Deal’,” said Dave Cooke, a vehicles analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“When it comes down to taking an actual decision, the chances of this being the decision seem significantly less likely, because the justification will be difficult, but they can feign that they’ve tried,” he said. “It’s a way of appealing to a specific segment of the anti-regulatory right.”

Some people close to the administration, including Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who led EPA’s transition team, have called for the revocation of California’s authority to set its own standards, which 12 other states and the District of Columbia follow. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has denied the agency is planning to do so at the moment.

EPA has until April 2018 to decide whether to change the standards. NHTSA has until April 2020. But because of statutorily required lead times, that agency would need to decide earlier if it were to change the 2021 target.

Even though automakers lobbied Trump hard to reconsider the emissions limits, not all companies want the administration to make them less stringent.

Automakers generally say the Obama standards are expensive and difficult to meet as consumers flock to gas-guzzling trucks instead of fuel-efficient or electric cars.

They have petitioned regulators to grant them additional flexibilities and smooth out differences between EPA, NHTSA and the California’s Air Resources Board programs.

‘Not just about the technology’

Wade Newton, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said the trade group was not “prejudging the outcome” but hoped that regulators would “rely on the facts to drive improvements in fuel economy, including data on consumer sales, gas prices and technology costs.”

Chris Grundler, head of EPA’s transportation office and a career staffer, told automakers at a conference last week that the agency would seek out more data as part of its review, reported the Detroit Free Press.

“We’ve heard this loud and clear. It’s not just about the technology. It’s about the market, it’s about the consumers,” he said.

Grundler also said it was an opportunity to consider how to design a greenhouse gas reduction program for vehicles that took into account the rise of autonomous vehicles, and ride- and car-sharing companies.

California regulators voted against reopening the review in March and instead adopted the stringent 2025 standards, setting up the potential for a patchwork of federal and state rules (Climatewire, March 27).

Annette Hebert, chief of the emissions division at California’s ARB, said at the conference the state’s regulators had not yet received an invitation to negotiate with the White House.