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: Republicans eye top spot on Natural Resources panel | GOP lawmakers push back on bill to make greener refrigerators, air conditioners | Green groups sue Trump over California fracking plans Republicans push back on bipartisan bill to make greener refrigerators, air conditioners House passes sweeping bill to target spread of toxic 'forever chemicals' 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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 DingellMaking waves to protect America's waters Trump suggests LBJ is in hell: 'He's probably looking down — or looking up' 10 controversies that rocked the Trump White House in 2019 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 ShimkusRepublicans eye legislation to rival Democrats' sweeping climate plan Overnight Energy: House passes sweeping bill on 'forever chemicals' | Green groups question Pentagon about burning of toxic chemicals | Steyer plan would open US to climate refugees House passes sweeping bill to target spread of toxic 'forever chemicals' MORE (R-Ill.).  

Rep. Kathy CastorKatherine (Kathy) Anne CastorOvernight Energy: Pelosi vows bold action to counter 'existential' climate threat | Trump jokes new light bulbs don't make him look as good | 'Forever chemicals' measure pulled from defense bill Pelosi warns of 'existential' climate threat, vows bold action Overnight Energy: Pelosi vows to push for Paris climate goals | Senate confirms Brouillette to succeed Perry at Energy | EPA under attack from all sides over ethanol rule 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.