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EPA Fuel Economy Standards Review Draws Criticism and Applause

At a public hearing last week, EPA heard testimony about its decision earlier this year to review vehicle emissions standards finalized by the Obama administration in its waning days.

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A Trump administration decision in March to revisit vehicle greenhouse gas emissions standards brought kudos from the auto industry at a 6 September public hearing in Washington, D. C. However, environmentalists and others condemned the move by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), worried that the administration might weaken the standards.

“For global warming, these fuel economy emission standards are the single largest step that any country on the planet has ever put on the books of their country in order to reduce greenhouse gases,” said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) at the hearing.

The hearing is part of the public’s opportunity to comment by 5 October on a 15 March decision by EPA and DOT to revisit fuel economy standards for cars and light-duty trucks for vehicle model years (MY) 2022–2025. The decision by EPA and DOT revisits an earlier midterm evaluation of MY 2017–2025 conducted by the Obama administration on 12 January that reaffirmed emissions standards. In addition, the agencies separately are also considering reexamining the emissions standards for MY 2021.

In the 12 January document, EPA estimated that “over the vehicle lifetimes the MY2022-2025 standards will reduce GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions by 540 million metric tons and reduce oil consumption by 1.2 billion barrels.” The standards would accomplish these reductions through an improvement in fleet average “real-world” fuel economy from about 26 miles per gallon (11 kilometers per liter) for MY 2016 to about 36 miles per gallon (15 kilometers per liter) for MY 2025. The document also found that the standards are feasible at a reasonable cost and will provide cost savings for consumers. The EPA notice states that a “robust technical record” supports the determination and that the auto industry “is thriving and meeting the standards more quickly than required.”

However, in announcing the revisiting of the standards on 15 March, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt deemed them “costly for automakers and the American people.” The agency said it will weigh such developments as powertrain and fuel efficiency technologies and vehicle electrification in its review. It will also consider the impact of building lighter-weight vehicles to achieve fuel efficiency and other safety issues and trends in fuel prices.

Automakers Voice Support

Industry voices applauded EPA’s decision to revisit the standards. At the hearing, Chris Nevers, vice president for energy and environment at the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said the decision that the Obama administration made did not provide EPA with sufficient time to fully consider the more than 100,000 public comments and adequately address factors like changing market conditions and the need to harmonize federal and state vehicle emissions standards. EPA’s 12 January decision came 13 days after the comment period for the proposed determination closed on 30 December 2016 and 8 days before Donald Trump’s inauguration.

Julia Rege, director of environment and energy with the Association of Global Automakers,  added that a new midterm review should provide manufacturers with flexibility to achieve emissions targets. She said the review should also “consider how to support the transition to a lower carbon, and ultimately no carbon, light-duty fleet that is likely required beyond 2025.”

Favoring the administration’s action as well is the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a Washington, D. C.–based think tank focused on limited government and free enterprise. “Before you continue to impose new more stringent [fuel economy] standards, we submit that you first do a full accounting, a numerical accounting, of this program’s past impact on traffic fatalities,” CEI general counsel Sam Kazman said at the hearing.

He told Eos that the Obama administration’s 12 January document was an attempt to “make it as difficult as possible for the incoming folks to change things.”

Questioning a Reopening of Standards

“The only discernable explanation for repeating the midterm review is to weaken these standards, a misguided action that will cost American taxpayers immediately in bureaucratic waste and down the road at the pump and with their health,” said Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.).

David Cooke, a senior vehicles analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that despite industry complaints about meeting the standards, they are doing so at a lower cost than the federal agencies projected. “By every metric, these standards are a success story,” he said.

California “harmonized” its state standards with EPA in 2010 and again in 2012. However, at the hearing, Annette Hebert, division chief of the emissions compliance, automotive regulations, and science division of the California Air Resources Board, cautioned against any changes to emissions standards.

“If EPA were to expand their midterm evaluation to include model year 2021 or weaken any of their greenhouse gas standards as a result of this reconsideration, not only would California need to remove itself from the national program, but it would also hurt the U.S. economy as the rest of the world gets off its dependence on oil,” she said. “However, California’s preferred approach is to continue progress working with EPA on more stringent standards for a national program beyond 2025.”

Sen. Markey told Eos he is going to fight for the existing standards but that he is skeptical that EPA will listen to public comments opposing changes. “My hope is that this hearing is not a charade,” he said. “My hope is that the more the public understands this issue, the more difficult it will be for the EPA to act. But thus far, they’ve been indifferent to public opinion on any environmental issue.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2017), EPA fuel economy standards review draws criticism and applause, Eos, 98, https://doi.org/10.1029/2017EO082057. Published on 12 September 2017.
© 2017. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0