Democrats grill Trump officials over fuel standard rollback

Democrats grill Trump officials over fuel standard rollback
© Greg Nash

Democrats slammed the Trump administration’s rollback of Obama-era vehicle emissions standards at a hearing on Thursday, calling the move a favor to the oil industry.

A key pillar of former President Obama's environmental legacy involved strengthening fuel emissions standards for cars to 54.5 mpg by 2026. But Trump's rollback, which Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) analysis said would increase petroleum consumption by 500,000 barrels per day, would freeze the average fuel economy at 37 mpg.

“What exactly are you hoping to accomplish?” Rep. Paul TonkoPaul David TonkoOvernight Energy: EPA expands use of pesticide it considers 'highly toxic' to bees | House passes defense bill with measure targeting 'forever chemicals' | Five things to watch as Barry barrels through the Gulf House passes bill to crack down on toxic 'forever chemicals' Scientific integrity is crumbling under Trump MORE (D-N.Y.) asked administration officials as they appeared before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “At best it isn’t clear.

"A reasonable observer would be forgiven for seeing an Administration so blinded by contempt for its predecessors and so willing to hurt consumers to support oil companies at any cost that it would defy science and common sense to move forward with a proposal with near universal condemnation from stakeholders,” he added.

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Officials from the administration defended the rollback.

Federal regulators said automakers were struggling to meet the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards set by the Obama administration and argue the higher fuel standards also drove up vehicle prices, putting improved cars out of reach for many families.

“We know that consumers are less likely to replace their older, less safe car with a newer, safer car if that newer, safer car is 20 percent more expensive,” said Heidi King, deputy administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which is also involved in crafting the standards. Consumers being able to afford newer cars will help get older, less fuel-efficient vehicles off the road, she argued.

EPA career staffers found the rule would not improve safety. Critics argue it is also expected to increase greenhouse gas pollution.

The controversial proposal is opposed by automakers, largely on the grounds that California is fighting to keep its more stringent standards. Other states can also adopt the California standards, and the Obama administration regulations stemmed from an attempt to avoid having two different fuel standards across the U.S.

California, which has had stricter vehicle emissions standards since the 1960s, is already suing the EPA to obtain the data it used to craft the rollback.

Rep. Debbie DingellDeborah (Debbie) Ann DingellOvernight Energy: Trump threatens veto on defense bill that targets 'forever chemicals' | Republicans form conservation caucus | Pressure mounts against EPA's new FOIA rule Trump threatens veto on defense bill that targets 'forever chemicals' Senate vote requires military, EPA to deal with harmful 'forever chemicals' MORE (D-Mich.), whose state is home to numerous automakers, said EPA and NHTSA were more interested in sidelining California, leading to a regulation likely to spur a lengthy lawsuit. She said she is concerned the proposal will hurt a fragile auto industry that needs to be able to plan to meet future fuel standards.

“It would result in years and years of litigation and uncertainty for an industry and their employees across the country that simply can’t take this uncertainty,” she said, pushing for one national standard. “I’m really not interested in a pissing contest between California and this administration, to be perfectly blunt.”  

But many committee Republicans said the Obama-era regulations attempted to push Americans toward hybrid vehicles and smaller cars when many rural Americans want or rely on SUVs and trucks.

“In the auto industry, we want to sell vehicles that people want to buy, and in rural America we like big things. We like big trucks, we like big engines, and we like to haul trailers,” said Rep. John ShimkusJohn Mondy ShimkusOvernight Energy: Fight over fuel standards intensifies | Democrats grill Trump officials over rule rollback | California official blasts EPA chief over broken talks | Former EPA official says Wheeler lied to Congress California official blasts EPA head over car standard negotiations Democrats grill Trump officials over fuel standard rollback MORE (R-Ill.).  

Rep. Kathy CastorKatherine (Kathy) Anne CastorPelosi, Schumer invite US women's soccer team to Capitol Democrats grill Trump officials over fuel standard rollback Steyer group targeting 12 congressional Democrats over impeachment MORE (D-Fla.) said the new rules were letting automakers off the hook, leaving America behind while other countries push manufacturers to innovate.

“Every time we have encouraged automakers to do better, they have met the challenge,” she said.

Committee Democrats on Wednesday announced they were beginning an investigation into petroleum manufacturers' involvement in the rollback, arguing oil companies were the only group that stands to benefit from the changes.