Trump administration moves to lower fuel economy standards

Trump administration moves to lower fuel economy standards

EPA Administrator Pruitt rejected Obama-era finding that standards were achievable.

April 3, 2018
By Robert Schoenberger

Cleveland, Ohio – More than a year after promising to revisit Obama-era fuel economy rules, President Donald Trump’s administration has taken steps to restart the rulemaking process.

At issue are Obama-era rules set in 2012 that mandated 54.5mpg average fuel economy by 2025, a standard that many automakers have complained is unworkable. With credits for updating refrigerants for air conditioning systems and other credits, real-world requirements were closer to 45mpg, but without a significant number of buyers opting for electric vehicles, even that lower number was a major challenge.

Automakers agreed to the higher standards in 2012, in part, because regulators included a Midterm Evaluation (MTE) process that would give them the chance to lobby for more realistic standards in 2017 and 2018. However, in the final days of his administration, Obama’s EPA sped up the MTE process, saying the 54.5mpg figure should stand.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt on Monday ruled that Obama’s MTE was faulty, effectively throwing out that ruling. That decision restarts the MTE, giving automakers a chance to lobby for lower standards. Automakers and car dealers praised the decision, environmental groups attacked it.

“The Obama administration's determination was wrong,” Pruitt said. “Obama’s EPA cut the MTE process short with politically charged expediency, made assumptions about the standards that didn’t comport with reality, and set the standards too high.”

In addition, Pruitt threatened to cancel California’s waiver to federal emission rules. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) sets higher emissions standards than the federal government using a waiver from the EPA. Twelve other states follow California’s lead, effectively creating two standards. Automakers agreed to the higher 2012 standards, in part, because of the promise to harmonize CARB with the EPA.

“Cooperative federalism doesn’t mean that one state can dictate standards for the rest of the country. EPA will set a national standard for greenhouse gas emissions,” Pruitt said. “It is in America's best interest to have a national standard, and we look forward to partnering with all states, including California, as we work to finalize that standard.”

Lawmakers in California and states that follow its standard have threatened to sue if the EPA revokes the waiver allowing those states to set higher emissions and fuel economy standards.

CARB Chair Mary D. Nichols called Pruitt’s actions “a politically motivated effort to weaken clean vehicle standards with no documentation, evidence, or law to back up that decision. This is not a technical assessment, it is a move to demolish the nation’s clean car program. EPA’s action, if implemented, will worsen people’s health with degraded air quality and undermine regulatory certainty for automakers.”

Nichols added that, “California will not weaken its nationally accepted clean car standards, and automakers will continue to meet those higher standards, bringing better gas mileage and less pollution for everyone.”

The EPA’s decision had been expected for more than a year, following Trump’s announcement that the agency would reconsider the Obama ruling.

In filings rejecting the late 2016 findings from the Obama administration, Pruitt relied heavily on comments from automakers and lobbying groups, mostly the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

Those groups have argued that many of the EPA’s 2012 market assumptions have proven to be wrong. Fuel economy has improved in the past six years as automakers have slashed vehicle weights; increased the use of smaller, turbocharged engines; and increased the use of 8-, 9-, and 10-speed automatic transmissions.

However, sales of hybrid and electric cars have not become a significant source of sales, and consumer tastes have shifted away from cars toward trucks, sport utility vehicles (SUVs), and crossovers.

”Despite automakers continuing to offer an increasing amount of advance technology vehicles for sale, consumer adoption remains very low,” Pruitt said in regulatory filings.

Pruitt’s decision effectively restarts the process, giving automakers and industry groups a chance to argue for big changes to future efficiency mandates. He did not provide a timeline for how quickly the EPA will develop new rules.

About the author: Robert Schoenberger is the editor of Today's Motor Vehicles and a contributor to Today's Medical Developments and Aerospace Manufacturing and Design. He has written about the automotive industry for more than 18 years at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio; The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky; and The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi.