Meet a key architect of Trump’s car rules rollback

Source: By Maxine Joselow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, January 4, 2021

A former top official who oversaw President Trump’s rollback of clean car standards says auto companies weren’t granted undue influence over the rulemaking process.

Heidi King, the former acting head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, told E&E News that she worked to temper car companies’ expectations for a direct line to the Trump White House.

“They assumed they’d come and pick a number with the White House and that the economists would then go do lots of math which magically would come out to the same number,” King said of automakers in a recent phone interview.

“And so my strong commitment really didn’t win a lot of friends. It was to say, ‘We’re actually going to … have the analysts do the modeling first. And when the modeling is done, then we’ll release it, and everybody in the world can see it and respond,” she added.

King, 55, was one of the main architects of the Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule, which weakened vehicle emissions and fuel economy standards established by former President Obama.

She stepped down from her post as acting administrator of NHTSA in August 2019, after the full Senate failed to consider her nomination to helm the agency on a permanent basis (Climatewire, Aug. 8, 2019). She now runs her own firm, dubbed Heidi R. King Analytic Consulting, where she represents clients in the transportation space.

In one of her first extended interviews since exiting the federal government, King spoke to E&E News about backlash over the SAFE Vehicles Rule, how she interacted with the auto industry and why she left NHTSA.

‘Political pressures’

The SAFE Vehicles Rule sparked fierce opposition from Democratic lawmakers and attorneys general, who charged that it would increase planet-warming emissions and cost consumers money at the gas pump.

King expressed pride in her work on the rule, despite its chilly reception on the left.

“I’m an economist. The reason I was there was to ensure a rigorous process, despite all the political pressures. You know, that rule is way overpoliticized,” King said.

“I think we did have a very, very good process,” she added. “I don’t know if we could have done better. I was actually quite proud of that.”

King said she was surprised that the SAFE Vehicles Rule generated so much controversy, even though it didn’t prevent automakers from making cleaner cars that exceeded federal requirements.

“I’m surprised that more people aren’t saying, ‘Well, why do you need the government to tell you to make a more fuel-efficient car? You’re already doing that. You can stop manufacturing the gas guzzlers if you want to,'” she said.

The SAFE Vehicles Rule is currently embroiled in litigation in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Oral arguments are slated for next year.

King declined to comment on the ongoing legal battle, noting that she stepped down before the rule was finalized.

Asked for comment, NHTSA spokesperson Sean Rushton said in an emailed statement to E&E News: “As has been noted, some outside the Administration sought to politicize the SAFE Vehicles Rulemaking. Previous [corporate average fuel economy] rules have sometimes been the product of a politicized process.”

Rushton added: “The 2012 rule … lacked the scientific rigor and transparency that the [Administrative Procedure Act] requires and the American people should expect from a rulemaking with such significant implications. In contrast, this Administration’s DOT and EPA carefully followed the APA and engaged in a transparent process designed to follow sound science and appropriately balance statutory factors. We do not comment on pending litigation.”

‘Level of influence’

When Obama announced the first-ever clean car standards in 2009, he invited Detroit’s three largest automakers to get involved in the negotiations in exchange for a federal bailout.

King said it made sense for the Obama administration to give the car companies a seat at the table, given the bailout conditions at the time.

“I was at OMB and [the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs] during the time when the White House was negotiating with [Obama climate czar] Carol Browner and the auto manufacturers and EPA on the carbon emissions standards. And I absolutely understand how and why that was done,” she said.

Still, King said the negotiations caused automakers to anticipate the same degree of access to the Trump administration.

“It did set the expectation among auto manufacturers that they basically were then going to do that from now on, instead of the Administrative Procedure Act,” she said.

“I’ll say as acting administrator, there was quite a bit of interest from the people who had had that level of influence before in retaining that level of influence,” she added.

NHTSA did meet with trade associations representing the U.S. auto industry on at least two separate occasions, according to Reginfo.gov, a federal rule-tracking website.

Shortly after his inauguration in January 2017, Trump also invited the CEOs of major automakers to the White House, where they reportedly urged him to loosen the Obama-era rules (Greenwire, Jan. 24, 2017).

The SAFE Vehicles Rule was a joint endeavor between NHTSA and EPA, which also met with an auto industry trade association in addition to environmental and public health groups.

King said she worked closely on the rule with then-EPA air chief Bill Wehrum, sitting down with him once a week to hash out policy decisions.

Wehrum, who stepped down in July 2019, is now a partner at the law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP. He didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story.

King said her departure from NHTSA, which came a month after Wehrum’s exit from EPA, had been in the works for a while.

“My move had already been planned. Because I’m old-fashioned government, if the Senate chooses not to confirm someone, I think it’s appropriate for that person to withdraw so that the president can nominate someone who potentially could be confirmed,” she said.

“That and then also, I was wearing several hats during my time there, and I was exhausted,” she added. “So I was eager to return to a less contentious life.”

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