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Scott Pruitt CNN
EPA ADministrator Scott Pruitt speaks to auto industry executives on April 4, 2018. (CNN Newsource)

As EPA moves to weaken emissions standards, environmentalists and states push back

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Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt defended a decision to revise fuel efficiency standards established under the Obama administration that has already generated stiff resistance from environmentalists and officials in Democratic-leaning states.

"I'm here to announce that those standards that were set that we are obligated to evaluate, we are determining, I am determining that those standards are inappropriate and should be revised," Pruitt said at a meeting with auto industry executives Tuesday.

Under a rule established by the EPA in 2012, every new fleet of vehicles would be required to achieve an average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. It also included a provision mandating that a mid-term evaluation of the standards be completed by April 1, 2018.

The Obama administration initiated its review in late 2016 and released its final determination in January 2017 reaffirming the original plan. Pruitt alleged that the evaluation process was “short-circuited” in an effort to complete it before Obama left office.

“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,” he said in a statement Monday.

The announcement came as Pruitt faced growing questions about his ties to industry lobbyists, including paying a low rate to stay in a condo owned by the wife of a lobbyist for several months last year. The Atlantic also reported Tuesday that Pruitt bypassed White House approval to give raises to two top political appointees.

Republican Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen have joined Democrats in calling for Pruitt’s resignation.

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Despite those controversies and continuing scrutiny of his domestic and international travel expenses, CNN reported President Trump and Chief of Staff John Kelly have called Pruitt to reassure him that his job is secure.

“I hope he will be great,” Trump said of Pruitt at a meeting with Baltic leaders Tuesday.

Though Pruitt suggested politics drove the Obama administration’s rush to finalize its review, critics claim Pruitt is the one caving to political pressure.

“This is a politically motivated effort to weaken clean vehicle standards with no documentation, evidence or law to back up that decision,” said Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board, in a statement. “This is not a technical assessment; it is a move to demolish the nation’s clean car program.”

In his speech Tuesday, Pruitt cast the review of the standards as a product of President Trump’s “America First” ideology.

“I think this midterm evaluation, the auto sector, the importance of auto manufacturing to this country, the president, again, is saying America is going to be put first. And we have nothing to be apologetic about," he said.

Some automakers have welcomed the change in policy as an opportunity to set more realistic goals for 2025 that grant them flexibility as they attempt to lower emissions.

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“We appreciate the EPA’s data-driven process in arriving at its Final Determination that adjustments to the national GHG program are needed,” John Bozzella, president and CEO of the Association of Global Automakers, said in a statement. “This is the first step in a longer rulemaking process, and the best way to achieve our collective goals is under a single national program that provides an aggressive but achievable pathway, a variety of compliance tools, and factors in the role of customers.”

The EPA will now work with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to establish new greenhouse gas and fuel efficiency standards. No timeline has been offered for that process.

April 2018 Final Determination Notice by Stephen Loiaconi on Scribd

The 2012 agreement was negotiated between the EPA, automakers, and California regulators. Despite Pruitt’s decision, officials in California intend to hold firm on their stricter standards.

California Gov. Jerry Brown had fought to keep the 2012 standards in place, arguing in a letter to Pruitt last year that reducing them would be “an unconscionable gift to polluters.” In a statement Monday, he called the announcement a “belated April Fools’ Day trick.”

Pruitt, who often led fights against Obama-era EPA mandates as Oklahoma attorney general, blasted California’s use of waivers granted under the 1970 Clean Air Act that allow the state to deviate from federal pollution regulations.

“Cooperative federalism doesn’t mean that one state can dictate standards for the rest of the country,” he said in his statement. “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.”

Other states are not empowered to set their own standards, but they are allowed to choose California’s over the federal government’s. About a dozen states have adopted California’s greenhouse gas standards, accounting for approximately 40 percent of the population.

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If the disparity persists, car companies could be left with two unpalatable choices in the years ahead: comply with the stricter standards, thereby negating the EPA’s action; or produce different models of cars for different states.

According to Ben Leard, a fellow at Resources for the Future, manufacturers already face a similar challenge with California and the handful of other states that have implemented zero emissions vehicle standards. It may be complicated and costly, but companies have shown they can target more efficient vehicles to the states that mandate them.

“You would just see more high economy vehicles sold in California and lower fuel economy vehicles sold in other states,” he said.

According to Pruitt, the EPA is now reviewing the waiver that allowed California to set stricter standards. Legal experts say revoking the waiver would likely trigger a lengthy legal battle.

California officials have repeatedly demonstrated a willingness and an eagerness to fight the Trump administration in court, and this instance already appears no different.

“My team is currently reviewing the EPA’s determination and working closely with the California Air Resources Board,” said Attorney General Xavier Becerra in a statement Monday. “We’re ready to file suit if needed to protect these critical standards and to fight the Administration’s war on our environment. California didn’t become the sixth-largest economy in the world by spectating.”

California may not have to wage that war alone. Accusing the EPA of “cooking the books” in its review of the standards, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said he too is prepared to take legal action.

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“This illegal rollback of achievable, common sense fuel efficiency and pollution standards for cars will result in higher fuel costs and more dangerous air pollution, including the carbon dioxide that drives climate change – creating real, direct, and damaging impacts on New Yorkers and our environment,” Schneiderman said in a statement.

For environmental advocates, Monday’s announcement was the latest in a long line of efforts by Pruitt to reverse regulations aimed at improving environmental quality.

“This is a rollback. This is a rollback of standards that the automakers and the federal government agreed to,” said Andrea McGimsey, senior director of global warming solutions at Environment America. “It is the wrong direction for our nation. We need to make our cars cleaner, not dirtier.”

Despite agreeing to the standards five years earlier, industry groups began lobbying the new administration to revisit the issue soon after Trump took office. Last March, the EPA announced it was reestablishing the midterm evaluation process.

“Elections matter,” McGimsey said. “Clearly we have a different administration, so the Auto Alliance pushed to have the standards lowered because they had a friendly ear now. Scott Pruitt and the EPA, I would argue are not fulfilling the mission of the Environmental Protection Agency.”

Automakers see the situation quite differently.

“Contrary to the breathless coverage of the Trump administration’s action to revisit fuel economy and greenhouse gas emission standards, this decision actually fulfills key promises made by the prior administration,” Mitch Bainwol, president and CEO of the Auto Alliance, said in a RealClearPolitics op-ed.

According to Bainwol, car manufacturers still embrace fighting climate change, but the Obama administration failed to meet its obligations by accelerating the midterm review and allowing redundant regulatory programs to remain in place.

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Jan 2017 Final Determination Notice by Stephen Loiaconi on Scribd

Weeks after the Obama EPA issued its final determination in 2017, new data showed for the first time that automakers were missing emissions targets. Bainwol placed much of the blame on gas prices remaining lower than projected. As a result, the public is buying more SUVs and trucks and fewer vehicles powered by alternative fuels.

“’Adjustments’ are not rollbacks,” he wrote. “We favor standards that increase year over year. The industry is committed to ongoing progress in a journey that has no end date. After all, we have invested substantially in energy-efficient technologies that we would like to see consumers embrace. We expect that fuel economy will keep rising. The only issue is at what speed.”

In his speech Tuesday, Pruitt similarly complained that the most efficient vehicles are not selling and consumers are choosing to stay in older, less efficient cars rather than pay the price for the new ones.

“I think the focus in the past has been on making manufacturers in Detroit, making manufacturers in various parts of the country make cars that people aren’t going to buy. Our focus should be on making cars that people purchase actually more efficient,” he said.

According to Leard, the drop in gas prices does present a very different picture of the market than negotiators faced six years ago when it cost about $3.50 per gallon. If prices had stayed high, he expects the conversation would be different, but efficient cars do not carry the appeal they once did.

“The manufacturers can implement many new technologies into these cars but the policy ultimately depends on the decisions of consumers,” he said.

David Cooke, a senior vehicles analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, argued in a blog post that the Obama administration’s January 2017 review was based on much stronger evidence than Pruitt’s new one is.

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“The administrator doesn’t seem to understand that lower gas prices actually underscore the importance of having strong efficiency standards, increasing sales of SUVs don’t affect the ability of manufacturers to meet the standards, and these standards are job creators, which means putting them on hold is going to COST jobs, not protect them,” Cooke wrote.

While Pruitt and industry groups stress the costs of compliance with onerous standards, environmentalists warn the long-term costs of falling behind foreign automakers who are developing more efficient vehicles for other markets could be higher.

"These standards inspire the technological innovation that leads to jobs and economic growth,” said Martha Roberts, senior attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund. “Weakening them won't help us beat our overseas competitors, it will just mean more pollution and more trips to the gas station."

According to Luke Tonachel, director of the clean vehicles and fuels project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, delaying or reducing action now will only make more aggressive measures necessary in the future.

“Pruitt would rather hand a bigger problem to future generations, resorting to the ‘can’t do’ arguments of auto industry lobbyists as opposed to the ‘can do’ approach that the U.S. has used to advance its technology and global leadership,” he said in a statement.

Whatever new standards the EPA develops will need to go through a review and public comment period, and they could become entangled in significant legal challenges beyond that.

“The auto industry has created its own headache,” Tonachel said. “By asking the Trump administration to weaken the standards, they are heading for years of uncertainty, namely, a severe, unjustified and harmful rollback that will be fought for years in court.”

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As manufacturers develop vehicles to hit the market in 2025, it is unclear when they or the car-buying public will know for sure to which standards they will need to adhere.

“It just didn’t make any sense to undo something that had been carefully negotiated and agreed to,” McGimsey said. “We’ve got a bit of a mess on our hands now.”

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