Dems grill EPA chief over auto emissions rollback plan

Democrats on Tuesday grilled Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Andrew Wheeler over his agency’s decision to roll back an Obama-era fuel emissions standard. 

While the hearing before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on environment and climate change was meant to critique the agency’s 2020 budget plan, Wheeler faced numerous questions from lawmakers about his agency’s not-yet-finalized plan to weaken the emissions standards for cars and light trucks.

“This proposed action is a perfect example of how EPA prioritizes boosting industries like the oil industry over public safety,” said Rep. Doris MatsuiDoris Okada MatsuiWe can accelerate a cure for Alzheimer's Overnight Energy: John Kerry hits Trump over climate change at hearing | Defends Ocasio-Cortez from GOP attacks | Dems grill EPA chief over auto emissions rollback plan Dems grill EPA chief over auto emissions rollback plan MORE (D-Calif).

Democratic lawmakers lobbed Wheeler with critical questions about the plan, officially proposed last August. EPA officials argued when submitting the proposal that the previous emissions standards determined under Obama and agreed to by U.S. automakers were limiting to the car industry.

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Wheeler told lawmakers Tuesday that the new plan would be just as strong on cutting emissions.

“I’ve been told by my staff that the impact of CO2 emissions are pretty similar to the Obama proposal, because the Obama proposal had a number of exemptions and off-ramps and many car auto makers are not complying with standards today,” Wheeler told members.

Yet lawmakers’ biggest concerns involved EPA’s announcement in February that negotiations had been ended with California -- a state that argues it has an exemption under the Clean Air Act to regulate its own emissions standards.

California’s government is arguing that the new emissions plan is not stringent enough to mitigate smog and global warming. On Monday the state sued the EPA to get the agency’s internal data used to draft the emissions policy. A larger suit against the agency’s plan is expected.

“California is uniquely situated and has some of the worst air quality. It has a unique authority to regulate emissions,” Matsui told Wheeler Tuesday.

She blamed the EPA for cutting off conversations with California’s Air and Resource Board (CARM) Chair Mary Nichols. A failure to reach a consensus with the state could mean the creation of more than one national emissions standard-- a reality auto groups argue will be financially challenging to the industry.

“If you actually engaged in good faith with California auto manufactures you could get a 50 states solution through an agreement-- although you state this, you never really tried,” said Matsui

Rep. Debbie DingellDeborah (Debbie) Ann DingellHouse Dem calls Mueller report 'a roadmap' for 2020 Dems grill EPA chief over auto emissions rollback plan Bipartisan group asks DHS, ICE to halt deportations of Iraqi nationals MORE (D-Mich.) appeared distraught when talking with Wheeler about the failure to come to a consensus on the deal.

“I care about the auto industry. It’s still the backbone of the American economy. I’m at a loss when it comes to reaching a consensus between everyone,” Dingell said. “If we want to be at the forefront of innovation and technology, that means money needs to go into R and D, not a court battle that can go on forever, that will give this administration uncertainty.”

Wheeler pushed back on lawmakers arguing that it was instead California that failed to respond to EPA’s emissions proposal with a “credible’ counter.

“I would love to have a one-standard, fifty-state solution to this,” said Wheeler.

“When Mary Nichols gave us her counter proposal after three months, she said at the time, although she is director of CARB, that board members had not signed off, the incoming governor had not signed off, the outgoing governor had not signed off on it and the attorney general had not signed off on it. He’s already sued us. There is a lot of politics going on in California over this issue.”

Dingell pushed Wheeler to promise to get back to the drafting table with CARB, saying she had recently spoken to Nichols who said she’d be open to re-starting talks.

But Wheeler resisted committing.

“We’re always open to hearing from California on this. But to be frank, they did not come back with a credible offer last fall, he said.

“California is only looking at this with one goal in mind, that’s energy efficiency and co2. And were looking at this much broader than that, including public safety and using real data as far as what American consumers are purchasing today.”

lawmakers additionally challenged Wheeler over proposed EPA changes to the Clean Power Plan (CPP) as well as delays in implementing water quality standards for the cancer-linked chemical PFAS. They criticized the agency’s lack of transparency with FOIA requests as well as its failure to answer document requests from the agency.

They also challenged Wheeler’s lack of focus on deterring climate change.

“The EPA is not acting urgently or comprehensively enough to address serious risks that go beyond our drinking water,” said subcommittee Chairman Rep. Paul TonkoPaul David TonkoAre 23 horse deaths enough to clean up the racing industry? Overnight Energy: Bernhardt confirmed as Interior chief | Dems probing if EPA officials broke ethics rules | Senators offer bipartisan carbon capture bill Dems probing whether EPA officials violated ethics rules MORE (D-Ny.)

“Perhaps the clearest example is the agency climate change agenda… We are spending billions of dollars responding to climate disasters. There is no excuse for sitting on our hands. There are meaningful and non-controversial steps that can be taken on this front.”

Wheeler told lawmakers that he did believe human activity is a cause of climate change, and fossil fuels play a part. But asked if he thought reducing emissions would help combat global warming, Wheeler said it was nuanced.

“Yes, but it’s on the margins. I think adaptation is very important,” he said.