The auto industry has made it a top priority to review the Obama administration’s 11th-hour attempt to lock in tough standards for years. | Getty
President Donald Trump will tap the brakes Wednesday on the Obama administration’s tightening of future vehicle emissions limits, in yet another strike at his predecessor’s energy and climate agenda.
The auto industry has made it a top priority to review the Obama administration’s 11th-hour attempt to lock in tough standards for years, and Trump will deliver on a trip to Michigan Wednesday. He will direct EPA to reconsider its recent conclusion that automakers would be able to meet strict limits strict limits on greenhouse gas emissions that would have vehicles getting more than 50 miles per gallon on average by 2025.
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However, the president is leaving in place a waiver that lets California and other states enforce stricter rules within their borders — sidestepping, at least for now, an all-out climate change battle with blue states. Wednesday’s announcement is part of a series of steps the Trump administration has taken to unwind Obama’s climate change programs. The president is expected to continue that effort in the coming days with an executive action directing EPA to begin rolling back its rules on power plant carbon emissions, among other steps, along with a budget proposal that aims to slash EPA’s purse by more than 25 percent.
“We’re going to pull back the EPA’s determination because we don’t think it’s right,” a senior White House official told reporters on Tuesday. “We’re going to spend another year looking at the data in front of us, making sure everything is right, so that in 2018 we can set standards that are technologically feasible, economically feasible, that allow the auto industry to grow and create jobs, that’s very important for the president.”
Trump announced the move during a trip to the Detroit area, where he spoke to auto executives and workers.
The president’s action is the first step toward relaxing the emissions rules, although the White House official cautioned that Trump is only directing EPA to continue studying the issue, not necessarily to weaken the standards.
Trump said his instructions to the agency will include “commonsense” changes to protect automakers’ jobs.
“If the standards threatened auto jobs, then commonsense changes could have and should have been made,” Trump told an audience of workers in Michigan while criticizing the Obama administration’s “11th-hour executive action” to lock those standards into place.
“We are going to cancel that executive action,” he continued. “We are going to restore the originally scheduled midterm review and we are going to ensure that any regulations we have protect and defend your jobs, your factories. We’re going to be fair.”
The emissions standards were set by the Obama administration in 2012 as part of a sweeping plan to encourage automakers to produce more hybrid and electric vehicles and reduce carbon emissions from transportation. However, formal changes to the standards would take years to implement, and the Trump administration would encounter fierce resistance from environmental groups and states that have struggled to reduce air pollution.
Automakers implored Trump to revisit the standards just days after his election. In a more recent February letter to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers wrote that the Obama administration’s decision to lock in the standards “may be the single most important decision that EPA has made in recent history.”
Obama’s EPA signed off on the 2022-25 vehicle rules in January, just one week before Trump took office — and more than a year before it was scheduled to complete its midterm review of whether cars and light trucks would be able to comply with the targets for those years.
EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is in charge of setting the sister fuel-efficiency regulations, began their midterm review last summer and were not required to complete it until April 2018. But three weeks after last year’s election, the Obama administration proposed keeping the standards and gave the public just 30 days to comment before cementing that policy.
Agency officials at the time insisted there was nothing wrong with acting 14 months early, but critics said the decision was a political one, rushed across the finish line in an effort to tie the Trump administration’s hands.
EPA estimated in January that the 2022-25 standards would save 1.2 billion barrels of oil and 540 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions over those vehicles’ lifetimes. However, the agency acknowledged that because of heavier-than-expected sales of big vehicles like SUVs, the U.S. would fall short of the much-heralded 54.5 miles-per-gallon goal that automakers and the Obama had agreed to in 2011. The Auto Alliance argues the standards would cost up to 1.1 million jobs because of lower vehicles sales, citing a 2016 study from the Center for Automotive Research, which is funded by government and corporate grants.
While the White House downplayed the notion that it necessarily will weaken the standards, the official did indicate the administration sees major problems with the regulation.
“The numbers just don’t add up,” the official said. “They may be making it in California, but overall the industry is concerned because consumers are not going to buy those vehicles if you have” low gas prices.
Environmentalists are already pushing back. “This is no time to shift cleaner car standards into reverse,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld of the League of Conservation Voters. “These commonsense clean cars standards are already doing their job to protect consumers, protect our health and climate, and reduce our oil consumption.”
Meanwhile, Securing America’s Future Energy, a group focused on reducing dependence on oil, called for all sides to come to the table. “There’s no reason for environmentalists, automakers, and conservatives to risk a nuclear war over these rules, which will result in zero progress for all sides,” said president and CEO Robbie Diamond.
Trump will direct EPA to put the midterm review back on the original schedule and make a new final determination by April 2018.
NHTSA has not yet completed mileage standards for 2022-25. It will start writing a new mpg rule, which must be finished by April 2020 and is meant to harmonize with EPA’s standards. NHTSA will be “much more of a partner” on the auto standards than it was under the Obama administration, the White House official said.
Rumors swirled in recent weeks that the Trump administration would seek to revoke a 2012 waiver granted by EPA to California to regulate vehicle emissions at a stricter level than the federal rules, but the administration decided against it, at least for now.
The White House official said the California standards, which are also followed by a dozen other states, are a bridge the administration will cross when it gets to that point, in 2018.
“The hope is that as you go through this process, California will be a partner and we’ll figure this out,” the official said. “If at that point California decides they want to go in a different direction, or we decide to go in a different direction, we’ll have to deal with it at that point. But that’s really down the road.”
Federal law since 1967 has given the Golden State special consideration under the Clean Air Act because of its history of high pollution and attempts to regulate emissions. California can apply for waivers from EPA to set stricter standards, which other states can then adopt as their own.
California routinely received its waivers until 2007, when the Bush administration announced it would deny California a waiver to set greenhouse gas emissions limits on cars and other vehicles, in what would have been the first such program in the nation.
That program became the template for the nationwide rules the Obama administration adopted five years later, after determining that EPA had to regulate carbon emissions. California eventually received its waiver, but agreed that it would consider any vehicles that met the EPA standards set in 2012 to be in compliance with state requirements.
A dozen states — representing 40 percent of the U.S. population — have adopted all or most of the California program, meaning that they could enforce stricter rules if the state waiver remains in place, even if EPA eventually relaxes the national requirement.
Democrats and environmentalists say there is no clear authorization in the law for EPA to revoke California’s waiver once it has been issued, meaning the state may have the upper hand over vehicle emission standards through 2025. Federal courts have never considered the issue, but Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said an “extremely strong case” could be made that the waiver must remain in place.
But California is raring for a fight.
State lawmakers have hired former Attorney General Eric Holder in preparation for battles with the federal government on a variety of issues. And Gov. Jerry Brown has vowed to keep in place state policies to reduce emissions. “We can do much on our own and we can join with others — other states and provinces and even countries, to stop the dangerous rise in climate pollution,” Brown said in his State of the State address in January. “And we will.”