Trump to propose weakening Obama-era clean car rules

Source: Zack Colman and Maxine Joselow, E&E News reporters • Posted: Friday, July 20, 2018

The Trump administration will propose weakening Obama-era clean car standards next week, according to an EPA official.

The long-awaited plan from EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will lay out several options for public comment. It will, however, identify a preference: freezing fuel economy targets at 2020 levels through 2026.

Critics of dialing back the standards argue doing so will ratchet up heat-trapping emissions from the transportation sector, which recently eclipsed the power sector as the country’s largest source of carbon dioxide.

EPA and NHTSA will not explicitly revoke California’s and other states’ ability to set tougher tailpipe standards.

Instead, it will take comments on the California Clean Air Act waiver for greenhouse gases. It also will weigh whether California’s need for the waiver applies to greenhouse gas emissions; some have argued the waiver is used for addressing local or regional pollution, meaning it shouldn’t apply to emissions that contribute to global warming.

That all sets the stage for further negotiation with California, which is currently chasing ambitious climate goals. Twelve other states and the District of Columbia have also adopted California’s rules, representing about 40 percent of the country’s auto market.

The plan doesn’t represent much of a departure from a leaked EPA draft obtained by E&E News and Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) in April (E&E News PM, April 27).

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao mentioned the prospect of delaying the proposed rule during a White House Cabinet meeting this week with President Trump, who looked surprised, according to a source briefed on the issue. White House Office of Management and Budget chief Mick Mulvaney committed to getting the proposal out Friday, but the decision was then delayed to early next week, that source said. EPA air chief Bill Wehrum remains committed to working out a deal with California, the source added.

Opponents of California’s waiver want more strident action from the Trump administration.

“Politically, there is no way that California will negotiate in good faith with Donald Trump on a climate issue,” said Tom Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research.

The administration could take a two-pronged approach to rescinding California’s Clean Air Act waiver, said Paul Cort, a staff attorney at environmental group Earthjustice.

First, the administration would argue that states are pre-empted from setting fuel economy standards by the 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act, which reserves that power solely for the Transportation Department. Legal experts note this argument has failed in court before.

Second, the administration would argue that California doesn’t have “compelling and extraordinary conditions” that justify a waiver, as required by Section 209 of the Clean Air Act.

Whatever process emerges will likely be contentious. Environmental groups have seen California’s standards as a key driver for reducing planet-warming emissions.

“California has since 1967 had the authority to set its own emission standards under the Clean Air Act, and EPA doesn’t have the authority to take that away, either for greenhouse gases or for the whole program, and the Transportation Department can’t do it either,” said David Doniger, senior strategic director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate and clean energy program. “They made the same arguments in the mid-2000s, and they lost. We’ve seen this movie, and we know how it ends.”

The Obama-era rules for model years 2022 to 2025 sought to bring average fuel economy to 54.5 mpg, or 36 mpg in the real world. That’s 10 mpg more than the average now.

California, 16 other states and the District of Columbia in May sued the Trump administration over its push to loosen the tailpipe standards (E&E News PM, May 1). So did a coalition of environmental groups (E&E News PM, May 15).

Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, the CEOs of several major automakers convened at the White House to discuss softening the rules (Greenwire, Jan. 24, 2017). But automakers have since said they never wanted such an aggressive rollback.

Some observers say the automakers may have simply wanted the government to provide more credits for technologies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions but aren’t necessarily related to the engine, like more efficient air conditioning. Environmentalists call some of these credits “loopholes” because their benefits aren’t well-verified.

The announcement next week will kick off a notice-and-comment period that is sure to attract thousands of comments from green groups, automakers and other interested parties.

Reporter Robin Bravender contributed.