Public asks agency to keep pollution rules for cars

Source: Camille von Kaenel, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, September 8, 2017

The public showed up in force yesterday to press U.S. EPA to maintain strong vehicle fuel standards, despite concerns among critics that the hearing was a “charade” by the Trump administration.

The meeting marked a public show of support for tailpipe rules covering cars made in 2021 to 2025. President Trump announced in March that his administration would review the regulations introduced by former President Obama to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It’s unclear if the rules will be changed.

No political appointees from EPA were on hand to hear the all-day testimony by industry and advocates. But staunch supporters of the rules, who outweighed opponents more than 25-to-1, seized on the opportunity to speak directly to regulators. It provided a preview of the resistance that the Trump administration would face if it decides to weaken the pollution rules on cars.

The Obama-era rules were projected to bring the average real-world fuel economy of cars and trucks to around 36 mpg by 2025. That amounts to a corporate average fuel economy target of between 50 and 52.6 mpg.

EPA has until April 2018 to decide if it will lower those goals, in collaboration with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Reps. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) and Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) urged EPA officials to maintain the stringent standards. Military generals and religious leaders joined environmentalists and health advocates to portray the rules as a moral imperative.

Their arguments are so well-known to EPA staff that advocates promoted the hashtag “#DejaReview” on Twitter.

“The transportation sector is the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions, and EPA has a legal obligation to limit that pollution,” said Molly Rauch, public health policy director for the Moms Clean Air Force. “And because climate change poses such a grave risk to our children, we as parents also think we have a moral obligation.”

Three retired generals showed up to frame fuel economy as a national security issue. According to EPA calculations, the rules would eliminate 12 billion barrels of oil imports between 2015 and 2040.

Markey, who co-authored the law that raised the standards in 2007, called it a “sin” to continue relying on foreign oil. His voice rose as the Democrat spoke without a script for longer than scheduled. The crowd applauded.

“My hope is that this hearing is not a charade. … But unfortunately, as you look around at the other decisions being made by the Trump administration, you have to have a certain level of apprehensiveness,” he told reporters a few minutes later.

About 20 private citizens — including retired government employees and others who stopped by after work — traveled to the hotel in downtown Washington, D.C., to testify.

Dan Boone, the leader of United Steelworkers Local 979 in Cleveland, flew in to urge the regulators against changing the standards. He helps manufacture lightweight steel, which the National Academy of Sciences has found is one of the technologies that most help automakers meet the standards.

“Fuel efficiency is a jobs driver in Ohio,” Boone said. “It’s the right thing to do for workers and for the environment.”

Chris Grundler, the director of EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality and a career staffer, singled out the workers and citizens to thank them for coming.

“Your voice is not outweighed by those more credentialed than you,” he said, seeking to reassure a self-effacing citizen who urged him to protect the rules to tackle rising greenhouse gas emissions from transportation. “Far from it. … We appreciate it because it’s not your job.”

A mystery in 2021

Only three organizations — the Conservative Enterprise Institute, Heartland Institute and National Automobile Dealers Association — argued clearly for a weakening of the standards.

Representatives of the auto industry asked regulators for relief from the Obama-era standards, demanding that EPA analyze how changing gas prices and consumer preferences make compliance too difficult for them. They did not specify to what degree they would like to see the stringency of the rules relaxed.

In a surprise move last month, EPA asked for feedback on reconsidering the standard for model year 2021 — which is already on the books and is not part of the scheduled midterm review. Automakers, which start planning production five years in advance, have said they have not asked for the review to be expanded to include 2021.

Pressed by Grundler, Chris Nevers of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said that including 2021 in the review “would be appropriate in the context of harmonization” with other regulators. NHTSA, which Trump has sought to empower in the joint rulemaking process, was the first to float the idea last spring of changing the 2021 standard.

Julia Rege of Global Automakers, the trade group representing international carmakers, told Grundler that the positions of companies vary on whether to reopen the rules for 2021.

“Every manufacturer has their own compliance plan that will get them through 2021, and some of them have come and talked to you with some of the challenges they may be facing with 2021,” said Rege. “When we submitted the petition [for harmonization], we asked for immediate action.”

Other manufacturers split from the automakers to take a stronger stance against changing the 2021 standard.

“Suppliers have made long-term investment decisions based on these standards set in a previous rulemaking,” said Laurie Holmes of the Motor and Equipment Manufacturers Association. “Relaxing the 2021 standard would cause adverse economic impacts, including the loss of jobs.”

Any move by the Trump administration to weaken the standards would be met by widespread opposition, likely causing uncertainty for the industry.

Environmental officials from California, New York and Massachusetts told EPA officials they would push forward with their own standards under an existing special Clean Air Act waiver. Some fear that the Trump administration may try to revoke the waiver.

“Let me make this absolutely clear: If EPA elects to break its commitment by revising the previously agreed-upon model year 2021 standards, or by ignoring the technical record that confirms the current standards are appropriate, California will need to revisit its continued participation in the national program,” said Annette Hebert, chief of the Emissions Compliance, Automotive Regulations and Science Division at the California Air Resources Board.