U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt in a 2017 address (image: Environmental Protection Agency).

EPA to lighten Obama-era vehicle emissions standards

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced on April 2 what many in the auto industry asked for, confirming that the agency plans to ease aggressive vehicle emissions standards, signed into law by the Obama Administration in 2012, that require automakers to achieve a fleetwide fuel-efficiency average of 54.5 mpg (4.3 l/100 km) by 2025.

The rules effectively regulate fuel efficiency by limiting the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions measured at the vehicle tailpipe.

Administrator Scott Pruitt’s EPA takes the action as part of the so-called midterm evaluation (MTE) structured into the original law that designates an administrative and technical review of the regulation before it can enter its final phases scheduled for vehicle model years 2022-2025. By 2025, each manufacturer’s fleet fuel economy was intended to average at least 54.5 mpg. But years of inexpensive gasoline and the resulting consumer preference for larger vehicles prompted Pruitt’s EPA to maintain that a reevaluation of the regulations was in order.

“The Obama Administration's determination was wrong,” said Pruitt in an EPA press release issued on April 2. “Obama’s EPA cut the Midterm Evaluation process short with politically charged expediency, made assumptions about the standards that didn’t comport with reality and set the standards too high.”

The EPA added it was Pruitt’s “final determination that, in light of recent data, the current standards are not appropriate and should be revised. Administrator Pruitt is also announcing the start of a joint process with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to develop a notice and comment rulemaking to set more appropriate GHG emissions standards and Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards.”

California schemin’

In the weeks leading up to the EPA’s announcement of its MTE findings, it was widely believed the agency would roll back the regulations and officials in California, a state long at the vanguard of aggressive environmental activism, were girding for a legal showdown. At issue is provision of federal law that allows California—as well as many other Northeast states that joined it—to set its own emissions standards. 

Pruitt and the EPA had indicated they might challenge California’s authority to do so. Meanwhile, although many automakers had lobbied the Trump Administration’s EPA to ease the federal standards with the MTE, they also worry that California’s intention to remain with the 54.5-mpg regulation will create a highly undesirable patchwork of emissions rules that will add cost and complexity to nationwide compliance.

California state Attorney General Xavier Bacerra, who had initiated legal actions to prevent a federal watering-down of the emissions regulations, said in a statement, “The Trump Administration’s assault on clean-car standards risks our ability to protect our children’s health, tackle climate change and save hardworking Americans’ money.”

“Cooperative federalism doesn’t mean that one state can dictate standards for the rest of the country,” the EPA’s Pruitt countered, adding, “EPA will set a national standard for greenhouse gas emissions that allows auto manufacturers to make cars that people both want and can afford — while still expanding environmental and safety benefits of newer cars. 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.”

Other groups said easing the regulations also will cost vehicle owners more in added fuel costs. Ford, for one, stated specifically that it did not ask for relaxation of the original emissions standards.

For its part, the EPA indicated with the appearance of finality that it intends to initiate a “joint process with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to develop a notice and comment rulemaking to set more appropriate GHG emissions standards and Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards.” 

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