EPA wanted its logo removed from the controversial car rules

Source: Maxine Joselow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, August 17, 2018

EPA is the harsh teacher, and the Transportation Department is the struggling student.

That’s the dynamic at play in regulatory comments submitted this week on the Trump administration’s proposal to weaken Obama-era clean car rules.

In dozens of instances throughout the document, EPA career staffers criticize DOT political appointees for making faulty assumptions in order to justify the rollback.

Chief among their concerns is that freezing the car rules could mean more deaths from vehicle crashes — not fewer, as DOT claims (Climatewire, Aug. 15).

In another section, EPA chastises DOT for making an inaccurate comparison regarding the standards’ effect on vehicle prices, saying, “These sentences are comparing apples to oranges.”

EPA staffers also accuse DOT of misrepresenting the findings of researchers Mark Jacobsen and Arthur van Benthem, saying, “The comment about Jacobsen & Van Bentham’s finding is the opposite of what they find.”

EPA submitted the regulatory comments to the White House Office of Management and Budget in June. They were uploaded on Tuesday to the rulemaking’s docket on regulations.gov.

The revelations came two weeks after the Trump administration signaled that it plans to freeze fuel economy standards at 2020 levels, meaning that new car models would travel on average about 30 mpg of gas rather than 36 mpg.

In the regulatory comments released this week, the phrase “EPA does not agree” appears 19 times.

For example, next to a DOT paragraph about how the rollback could encourage more sales of new vehicles, EPA career staff wrote: “EPA does not agree with this conclusion. It’s also inconsistent with the argument, above, that consumers consider the lifetime of fuel economy in their purchase decisions.”

Jeff Alson, a former staffer in EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality, said he heard from former colleagues that DOT political appointees manipulated the findings in their rush to finalize the proposal.

“These political folks had all the answers they wanted. They cooked the books,” said Alson, who served as a senior engineer and policy adviser in the transportation office for 40 years before retiring three months ago.

EPA career staffers were shut out of the process by DOT political appointees, who refused to invite them to meetings for months, Alson said. EPA career staffers tried to signal to OMB that their concerns about DOT’s technical analysis didn’t make it into the final proposal, he said.

Indeed, EPA stated in separate regulatory comments, “This Preliminary [Regulatory Impact Analysis] is a work product of DOT and NHTSA, and was not authored by EPA. … EPA’s name and logo should be removed.” The agency was referring to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

EPA spokesman John Konkus pushed back on the notion that there was infighting between the agencies as they sought to craft the proposal.

“These emails are but a fraction of the robust dialogue that occurred during interagency deliberations for the proposed rule,” Konkus said in an email to E&E News. “EPA is currently soliciting comments on eight different alternative standards and we look forward to reviewing any new data and information.”

Alson said EPA’s top political brass would have trouble defending the administration’s car proposal if it’s challenged in court.

“Right now there’s this EPA leadership that chose to rubber-stamp the NHTSA analysis justifying weakening the greenhouse gas emission standards,” he said. “And then there’s EPA career staff who are the world’s experts on greenhouse gas emission standards who were shut out. I assume any reasonable judge would say, ‘Wow, EPA political leadership is proposing to weaken the standards, and they didn’t even ask the career staff.'”

DOT and EPA have joint jurisdiction over the clean car rules. EPA is responsible for promulgating tailpipe greenhouse gas emissions standards with attention to public health and climate change. DOT is responsible for promulgating corporate average fuel economy standards, with a focus on driver safety.

Tension is bound to arise when two agencies are jointly responsible for one rulemaking, said Bill Reilly, who served as EPA administrator under President George H.W. Bush.

Reilly recalled working with the Coast Guard — then a division of DOT — in the aftermath of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

After a tanker spilled 10.8 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound, Bush tasked Reilly and then-Transportation Secretary Sam Skinner with producing a report on the spill and future protection of the nation’s harbors.

“I remember talking to Transportation Secretary Sam Skinner, and he later thanked me for my objections,” Reilly said. “I didn’t go public with my criticism of his report, but we certainly had it. That sort of negotiation is not uncommon, I suspect, when two agencies have jurisdiction.”