The next step for EPA to relax fuel economy standards: Public comment period

Automakers wanted EPA’s mpg targets relaxed, and they’ll likely get their way.

Much like the Clean Power Plan and the Waters of the United States Act, the fuel economy standards that were proposed and finalized by Obama’s EPA have also been in the crosshairs of President Donald Trump’s EPA. The new administration argues that the current fuel economy standards will cost automakers too much money. However, the current standards were based on extensive research that showed consumers saving hundreds or thousands of dollars per year in fuel expenses. Although the EPA estimated that automakers would collectively lose $200 billion over 13 years in complying with the fuel economy standards, the International Council on Clean Transportation—the same group that helped bring to light Volkswagen’s emissions cheating scandal—released a study showing that the EPA’s estimates had been too conservative, and automakers can meet aggressive fuel economy standards more economically.

The Obama-era EPA’s fuel economy standards require that automakers reach an average fuel economy of 54.5 mpg by 2025, which would reduce consumption of fossil fuels and reduce the amount of CO2 entering the atmosphere. Many in Trump’s administration, including Pruitt and Trump himself, falsely claim that climate science is either bogus or murkier than it actually is.

The Obama Administration’s EPA proposed and finalized the current guidelines in 2012 with the cooperation of auto industry, environmental, and consumer group representatives. The agency allowed for a mid-term evaluation of the 2022-2025 guidelines that was to be completed no later than April 2018. The agency had completed most of the mid-term evaluation process by December 2016, just before the administrations were set to change. It then finalized the planned fuel economy standards for 2022-2025 in January before the inauguration, and well before April 2018.

But the auto industry balked at the early completion of the mid-term review, especially after the election, when it was clear that the industry could have pushed to relax the rules.

Now, Trump’s EPA will have to go through an equally lengthy process to roll back the rules. But Trump and Pruitt announced their intention to get the process started in March. In his statement on Thursday, Pruitt said the EPA would also take public comment on whether the fuel economy standards for 2021 should be reviewed—a blow to environmental and consumer groups that thought the EPA’s review would only touch standards for 2022 to 2025.

Pruitt, who has been criticized for his close ties to the oil and gas industry, said in a statement that the public comment period on the EPA’s decision to review fuel economy standards would last for 45 days. “We encourage the public to submit the best-available and most up-to-date information, so that we can get back on track with what the regulation actually requires of the Agency.”

The EPA’s statement also indicated that the agency would be working to harmonize its fuel economy standards with the Department of Transportation, a sticking point with the auto industry, which has complained that it must adhere to different rules promulgated by different government agencies. The EPA and the DOT have maintained two separate fuel economy standards (greenhouse gas or GHG standards at the EPA and Corporate Average Fleet Emissions or CAFE standards at the Department of Transportation). In addition, California’s Air Resources Board has its own emissions rules, although CARB has indicated that it will maintain its own standards and fight any efforts from the federal government to diminish its powers.

In a statement, the Auto Alliance, an industry group that represents a number of auto makers including BMW, Ford, GM, Land Rover, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo, praised Pruitt’s move in a statement: “With this announcement, the Administration is fulfilling its commitment to reinstate the midterm evaluation of future vehicle fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards. This review is important to consumers nationwide who want government to rely on the facts to drive improvements in fuel economy. We’re delighted to see the two federal agencies align and coordinate their programs, and we thank Secretary Chao and Administrator Pruitt for working closely together to harmonize a review driven by the most current data, consumer preferences and marketplace realities. We look forward to joining in with other stakeholders, including California, to ensure this program remains a success.”