Trump moves to roll back Obama emission standards

The Trump administration rolled out a plan Thursday to weaken the Obama administration’s aggressive fuel economy and global warming standards for cars and strip California of its ability to determine its own vehicle regulations for greenhouse gas emissions.

In a major rebuke of a key pillar of former President Obama’s legacy that's certain to end up in court, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Transportation (DOT) declared that the heightened emissions standards set to take effect for cars built from 2021 and 2026 are unreasonable for both economic and safety reasons.

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The Obama administration set the standards in 2012 as part of a set of rules meant to intensify from 2017 through 2026.

Instead, the EPA and DOT are now proposing freezing the standards at their planned 2020 level, canceling any future strengthening.

The agencies said new cars and light trucks built in 2020 through 2026 would average 37 miles per gallon under the proposed freeze. Obama’s rule would have resulted in 54.5 miles per gallon by 2026.

While the freeze was known as the administration’s preferred method, the agencies also floated a handful of other plans that could instead be adopted. All sought to weaken the emissions standards.

“We are delivering on President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: I hope voters pay attention to Dem tactics amid Kavanaugh fight South Korea leader: North Korea agrees to take steps toward denuclearization Graham calls handling of Kavanaugh allegations 'a drive-by shooting' MORE’s promise to the American public that his administration would address and fix the current fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions standards,” said EPA acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler in a statement Thursday. “Our proposal aims to strike the right regulatory balance based on the most recent information and create a 50-state solution that will enable more Americans to afford newer, safer vehicles that pollute less.”

During his first hearing in front of the Senate as EPA head on Wednesday, Wheeler spoke openly about the proposal, saying that the rollback could save consumers $500 billion.

While he said oil consumption would increase if the efficiency rules are weakened, the benefits could outweigh that negative.

“I believe the analysis shows that more oil would be consumed,” Wheeler said. “But it also will save 12,000 lives and $500 billion.”

The proposal is one of the most significant actions President Trump has taken so far to fight Obama’s climate change agenda.

Transportation is the most significant source of carbon dioxide emissions in the nation, and the Obama rules were estimated to reduce emissions by 6 billion metric tons and reduce oil use by 2 million barrels per day.

The main arguments behind the administration’s decision to roll back the Obama regulations are safety and economics.

In addition to the argument that car manufacturers will be unable to meet the fuel efficiency standards set forth in the Obama plan, the administration is arguing that more stringent standards will drive up the cost of new cars — therefore leaving many drivers stuck with older models with lower safety standards.

“Already in the U.S. we have the oldest fleet in the nation's history, an average of 12 years old,” Heidi King, deputy administrator at DOT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), told reporters Thursday. “We want to get the newest technologies in the fleet in order to keep automobiles affordable for everyone. Most importantly, this rule promises to save lives.”

The preferred rule would save consumers $500 billion in car costs and avoid 12,700 deaths due to safety improvements, the agencies said. They argued that efficiency rules make cars less safe because lighter cars are more dangerous, efficiency gains make people drive more and increased car costs discourage people from buying new vehicles.

The auto industry, which has long sought to ease Obama's rules, welcomed the proposal as the start of a negotiation, though it did not endorse a complete freeze of the standards in 2021.

“Automakers support continued improvements in fuel economy and flexibilities that incentivize advanced technologies while balancing priorities like affordability, safety, jobs, and the environment,” the nation’s two main auto lobbying groups, the Auto Alliance and Global Automakers, said in a joint statement.

“With today’s release of the administration’s proposals, it’s time for substantive negotiations to begin. 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.”

Conservative advocates also cheered the plan.

“It means that the federal government will have slightly less control over the kinds of cars and trucks people can buy. It might even cause car prices to stop increasing so rapidly,” said Myron Ebell, head of the energy and environment program at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Ebell also applauded the administration for seeking to revoke California’s waiver.

“Letting one state make decisions for people in other states makes a bad program even worse, especially since the state is California, which has been pursuing an anti-car agenda for decades,” he said.

Environmental groups slammed the rollback, saying it put significant climate and consumer benefits at risk.

“The Trump administration is driving our auto future in reverse,” Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.

“The clean car standards are already saving our families billions at the pump, supporting nearly 300,000 American jobs, and cleaning up dangerous tailpipe pollution. We need to speed up that progress, not slide backward. Let’s keep our eyes on the road — and not let Trump and his dirty deputies run us into the ditch.”

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune, meanwhile, said the proposal “is one of the most significant attacks on clean air and climate action in history, and, Donald Trump is making it clear his mantra is pollution over everything.”

“Trump’s administration is slamming the brakes on communities that want to breathe cleaner air while saving money at the pump — and he’s doing it for no reason other than his desire to please his friends in corporate boardrooms across the country,” he said.

A group of attorneys general from 19 blue states and the District of Columbia pledged to sue if Trump makes the proposal final.

“Freezing or weakening these standards puts the health of our children, seniors, and all communities at risk, and increases the rising costs of climate change for our states,” said the group. “This decision upends decades of cooperative state and federal action to protect our residents. We are prepared to go to court to put the brakes on this reckless and illegal plan.”

EPA is responsible for greenhouse gas emissions rules and NHTSA is responsible for fuel economy rules. But the agencies treat the rules as one program, since decreasing emissions almost always improves fuel efficiency.

Former EPA Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight Energy: Trump rolls back methane pollution rule | EPA watchdog to step down | China puts tariffs on US gas EPA inspector general to resign Overnight Energy: EPA watchdog says agency failed to properly monitor asbestos at schools| Watchdog won’t investigate former Superfund head’s qualifications| Florence causes toxic coal ash spill in North Carolina MORE first announced that the EPA under Trump would be rolling back Obama’s rule in April, concluding that the standards were not achievable. Pruitt resigned earlier this month amid numerous ethical and spending scandals.

The new proposal also represents a major knock on California, whose authority to set its own greenhouse gas emission standards under the Clean Air Act (CAA) for cars has grown to become central to its progressive environmental image. More than a dozen other states are currently following the California standard.

The administration’s rule aims to preempt the Golden State’s CAA waiver and argues that it should be pulled entirely.

Bill Wehrum, assistant administrator of EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, told reporters there is “no justification for California to have its own standard.”

Wehrum argued that while the state had been allowed under CAA to determine its vehicle standards for conventional pollutants that contribute to smog — a major local issues in California — greenhouse gases do not disproportionately affect the state and therefore it should have no increased power to regulate them.

The position will almost certainly set up a lengthy legal battle between California and the Trump administration.

California Attorney General Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraOvernight Energy: Trump rolls back methane pollution rule | EPA watchdog to step down | China puts tariffs on US gas Trump administration weakens methane pollution standards for drilling on public lands Judge rules against DeVos rollback of Obama-era student loan regulations MORE (D) said he’d fight the Trump administration if it moved to revoke the waiver.

“The California Department of Justice will use every legal tool at its disposal to defend today's national standards and reaffirm the facts and science behind them,” he said in a statement.

“Our nation’s Clean Car Standards save consumers thousands of dollars, protect our families’ health, and ensure that we continue tackling climate change, the most important global environmental issue of our time. We are ready to do what is necessary to hold this administration accountable.”

Becerra in May filed a lawsuit against the administration after EPA first announced it would be changing Obama’s vehicle emission standards.

Thursday’s proposal will soon be published in the Federal Register, kicking off a 60-day period during which the public will be invited to submit comments. After that, the agencies will review the comments before making the plan final, at which time opponents could sue to stop the rollback.

--Updated at 10:10 a.m.