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Trump Unveils His Plan to Weaken Fuel Efficiency Rules

The Trump administration on Thursday unveiled its long-awaited proposal to dramatically weaken an Obama-era regulation designed to limit vehicle emissions, which contribute to climate change.

The publication of the proposal sets up a race among opponents of the change — an unusual mix of environmentalists, automakers, consumer groups and states — to temper the plan before it is finalized this year.

The proposal would freeze rules requiring automakers to build cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars, including hybrids and electric vehicles, and unravel one of President Barack Obama’s signature policies to combat global warming. It would also challenge the right of states to set their own, more stringent tailpipe pollution standards, setting the stage for a legal clash that could ultimately split the nation’s auto market in two.

The Trump administration’s proposal, jointly published by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Transportation Department, would roll back a 2012 rule that required automakers to nearly double the fuel economy of passenger vehicles to an average of about 54 miles per gallon by 2025. That rule, which would have significantly cut the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions while saving billions of barrels of oil, was opposed by automakers who said it was overly burdensome.

In a statement published Thursday on The Wall Street Journal’s website, “Make Cars Great Again,” Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao and Andrew Wheeler, the acting administrator of the E.P.A., wrote that the Obama-era standards would “impose significant costs on American consumers and eliminate jobs,” and that their new proposal would “give consumers greater access to safer, more affordable vehicles, while continuing to protect the environment.”

The new proposal would freeze the increase of average fuel economy standards after 2021 at about 37 miles per gallon. It would also revoke a legal waiver, granted to California under the 1970 Clean Air Act and now followed by 13 other states, that allows those states to set more stringent tailpipe pollution standards than the ones followed by the federal government.

The Trump administration contends that, by promoting the manufacture and sale of lighter cars, the Obama standards could lead to about 12,700 more auto fatalities.

“This rule promises to save lives,” said Heidi King, the Transportation Department’s acting administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, who was a key author of the proposal and pushed the new traffic safety analysis, during a conference call with reporters Thursday morning. “It could save up to a thousand lives annually by reducing these barriers that prevent consumers from getting into newer, safer cars.”

William Wehrum, the E.P.A.’s Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation, added, “There is a tension between calling for ever-increasing efficiency standards on one hand, and the obligation to have safe vehicles on the road.”

While that conclusion forms the basis of the Trump administration’s reasoning on rolling back the pollution rule, it is in direct opposition to the Obama administration’s analysis of the same rule, which found that improving fuel-economy standards would actually lead to about 100 fewer auto-related casualties. Experts have disputed the accuracy of the Trump administration’s new analysis.

“The administration’s effort to roll back these standards is a denial of basic science and a denial of American automakers’ engineering capabilities and ingenuity,” said John DeCicco, an expert on transportation technology at the University of Michigan.

Republican lawmakers cheered the proposal.

“I applaud the Trump administration for proposing new standards for cars and trucks,” said Senator John Barrasso, the Wyoming Republican who is chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “Unless the Obama administration’s punishing standards are changed, consumer choice will be limited and the cost of vehicles will skyrocket.”

This week’s publication of the proposed rule in the federal register opens up the next legal step in the Trump administration’s procession toward undoing the Obama rule. The Trump administration will ask the public to formally submit comments on the rule. It will then consider those comments and issue a final version of the rule, most likely this year.

The proposal quickly met with criticism, even from some of the automakers that Mr. Trump has said he wants the plan to help. Critics of the plan — including manufacturers of cars and car parts, environmentalists, auto dealerships, consumer groups and at least a dozen states — are expected to spend the coming months urging the Trump administration to significantly change the proposal before issuing a final version.

While the chief executives of auto companies last year asked Mr. Trump to loosen the Obama-era rules, they have since asked him not to pull them as far back as he has sought to do in Thursday’s proposal. Since the proposal seeks to revoke states’ rights to set their own pollution standards, the states that do so, led by California, are expected to sue the administration. If that were to happen, the plan could end up tangled in litigation for years, leaving automakers caught in regulatory uncertainty.

Furthermore, if the Trump administration ultimately lost that legal battle, it could split the nation’s auto market in two, with one set of emissions standards set forth by the federal government, while a group of major states including California enforced their separate, stricter rules. Automakers have called that a worst-case scenario.

The governor of California, Jerry Brown, said his state was prepared to fight.

“For Trump to now destroy a law first enacted at the request of Ronald Reagan five decades ago is a betrayal and an assault on the health of Americans everywhere,” he said.

The attorney general of California, Xavier Becerra, intends to work with at least 18 other states to file a suit against the plan, a spokeswoman from Mr. Becerra’s office said Thursday.

That’s what worries the nation’s automakers, who will now urge the Trump administration to go back to the table and find a way to strike a deal with California before issuing a final proposal.

“With today’s release of the administration’s proposals, it’s time for substantive negotiations to begin,” Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said in a statement. “We urge California and the federal government to find a common sense solution that sets continued increases in vehicle efficiency standards while also meeting the needs of America’s drivers.”

Speaking to a Senate panel on Wednesday, Mr. Wheeler, the acting head of the E.P.A., said he would like to find a way to avoid a legal showdown with California. “It’s my goal to come up with a 50-state solution that does not necessitate pre-empting California.”

However, Mr. Wheeler’s views have clashed with those of others in the administration, particularly in the White House and at the Transportation Department, who are said to be spoiling for a fight with California.

Behind the scenes, Mr. Wheeler and Mr. Wehrum have sought to distance themselves from the auto fatality analysis put forth by Ms. King, out of concern that the numbers might be susceptible to legal challenge, according to 12 people familiar with the internal deliberations.

Mr. Wehrum acknowledged Thursday that the two agencies had had “long and spirited conversations” as they drafted the rules, and expressed hope that a final deal could eventually be reached with California. “We’re all going to get together again and try to find a middle ground,” he said. “All of us want a national program. No one wants a two-car world where there are one set of cars on one side of the country and one on the other. That makes no sense.”

Also urging the Trump administration to go back to the drawing board will be the nation’s manufacturers of auto parts and components. Those companies say that by potentially throwing the regulatory status of vehicles into years of legal uncertainty, the Trump administration will freeze investment and innovation in the high-tech auto-parts sector.

“It’s our hope now to prevent a dramatic weakening of the federal standard and further erosion of regulatory certainty, so we can continue to innovate and invest in the United States and cut harmful pollution in a timely fashion,” said Chris Miller, executive director of the Advanced Engine Systems Institute, a trade association of companies that develop pollution-control technology.

Meanwhile, environmentalists will open a campaign to generate public comments opposing the rollback, in an effort to pressure the administration to change. At the same time, some industry interests are expected to try to negotiate behind the scenes to temper the proposed rules in order to avoid the legal showdown with California.

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