States decry Trump’s ‘brazen attack,’ plan legal fight

Source: Maxine Joselow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, August 3, 2018

Cheers from the right and lawsuit threats from the left greeted the Trump administration’s rollout today of a proposal that would walk back Obama-era clean car standards.

The proposal from EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration outlines several options for the rules, with the administration’s preferred choice freezing fuel economy targets at 2020 levels through 2026.

The administration is also taking public comment on revoking California’s Clean Air Act waiver, which lets the state set tailpipe pollution rules tougher than the federal government’s. Twelve states and the District of Columbia have adopted California’s rules under Section 177 of the Clean Air Act, representing about 40 percent of new vehicles sold in the country.

Some of the strongest reactions to the administration’s proposal came from Section 177 states, with California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D) announcing plans to lead 19 other attorneys general in a lawsuit against the Trump administration.

“The Trump Administration has launched a brazen attack, no matter how it is cloaked, on our nation’s clean car standards,” Becerra said in a statement. “The California Department of Justice will use every legal tool at its disposal to defend today’s national standards and reaffirm the facts and science behind them.”

During a call with reporters, he said the proposal would ratchet up air pollution at a time when his state is suffering bad air quality because of wildfires he said were driven by a changing climate.

“Right now in California, 18 fires are raging here in our state,” he said. “Nine people have died, including firefighters.”

EPA air chief Bill Wehrum faced tough questions in another conference call with reporters about whether the agency is committed to finding a compromise with the Golden State.

“There’s pretty strong evidence that Congress intended the federal government to be the primary regulator here,” Wehrum said.

“All of us want one national program. It makes no sense to have a two-car world where certain cars have to be sold in one part of the country and other cars have to be sold in another part of the country,” he said. “So we’re going to try to work it out.”

The Trump administration maintains that rolling back the Obama standards will increase safety on the nation’s roads by preventing traffic-related deaths.

Heidi King, deputy administrator of the Department of Transportation’s NHTSA, said the proposal could save up to 1,000 lives annually by lowering the price of new cars, encouraging consumers to purchase newer, safer models.

But environmentalists countered that the safety argument has been debunked by the International Council on Clean Transportation, the group known for exposing the Volkswagen AG emissions-cheating scandal.

“As anyone with an air bag knows, cars keep getting safer as they have also gotten more efficient,” said David Doniger, senior strategic director for climate and energy at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The Trump administration has invented this phony rationale for rolling back these money-saving clean car standards.”

Robbie Diamond, president of Securing America’s Future Energy, which advocates for reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil, said in a statement, “The federal government’s own data shows that when managed properly for vehicle footprints, lightweighting and fuel economy rules don’t undermine highway safety. Saving lives while saving fuel can be accomplished simultaneously.”

Climate concerns

EPA and NHTSA have joint jurisdiction over the rules, with EPA regulating tailpipe greenhouse gas emissions and NHTSA overseeing fuel economy. To keep the programs aligned, the administration’s proposal would keep EPA’s greenhouse gas standards at 2018 levels through 2026 (E&E News PM, Aug. 1).

The administration maintains that the preferred option would have a negligible impact on air pollution and climate change.

The proposal says that option “would impact the global climate by 3/1000th of one degree Celsius by 2100.”

Wehrum tacitly acknowledged that the proposal would lead to “incrementally less protection of health and the environment.” But he said the agency is legally required to place weight on other relevant factors, including highway safety.

According to an analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Obama-era standards were estimated to reduce greenhouse gases by 2.2 billion metric tons. Several other environmental groups warned today that the proposal would increase greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, which recently eclipsed the power sector as the country’s biggest source of carbon dioxide.

Said Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp, “The Trump administration is preparing a proposal to substantially increase pollution while raising families’ costs at the gas pump by hundreds of dollars a year.”

The Obama EPA chief, Gina McCarthy, also expressed concern today that the proposal would undermine America’s ability to compete on the world stage.

“The Trump Administration is proposing to weaken clean cars standards in ways that give foreign markets and Oil & Gas companies a boost while the U.S. will be stuck in reverse,” McCarthy said in a statement. “Their strategy to Make America Great Again runs contrary to sound science and the law.”

‘Good news for consumers’

Conservative groups praised the proposal they see as fixing the Obama administration’s regulatory overreach.

Myron Ebell, director of the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Center for Energy and Environment, called the proposal “good news for consumers.”

Ebell added, “Even better news is the decision to take California out of the driver’s seat for setting CAFE standards for the entire country. Letting one state make decisions for people in other states makes a bad program even worse, especially since the state is California, which has been pursuing an anti-car agenda for decades.”

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers — the trade association whose members include Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co. and Fiat Chrysler — expressed cautious optimism and called for negotiations with California.

“We applaud the President and the Administration for releasing this much anticipated proposal that includes a variety of standards for public consideration,” the group said in a statement.

“With today’s release of the Administration’s proposals, it’s time for substantive negotiations to begin,” the group said. “We urge California and the federal government to find a common sense solution that sets continued increases in vehicle efficiency standards while also meeting the needs of America’s drivers.”

The administration predicts that freezing the standards at 2020 levels would increase domestic fuel consumption by half a million barrels per day.

Notably silent were oil companies and their main U.S.-based trade group, the American Petroleum Institute. They’ve previously stayed mum about the rollback, even as it could stand to benefit them financially (Greenwire, July 26).