Energy & Environment

New documents show EPA rolled back mileage standards despite staff, WH concerns

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The Trump administration pushed ahead with a rule that guts Obama-era clean car standards over objections from career staff at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and concerns within the White House, new documents show.

The regulations finalized in March roll back perhaps the most significant climate measure implemented during the Obama administration by lowering both fuel efficiency and emissions thresholds in a rule that’s expected to cost consumers some $13 billion.

Internal documents obtained by Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) detail how EPA staff objected to claims that the new rule would reduce climate change impacts, while other files showed the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) said the rule lacked legal justification.

Carper, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, told the EPA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) on Tuesday that the revelations further underscore the need for an investigation.

“My previous request to you observed that an effort to conceal further inter-agency disagreement could result in the concealment of embarrassing and legally risky information related to flaws in the final rule,” Carper wrote in a letter. “I have learned that this is exactly what has occurred.”

The OIG told The Hill it is reviewing Carper’s request.

The new standards require automakers to produce a fleet averaging 40 mpg by 2026, rather than the previous requirement of 55 mpg by 2025. The standards are a collaboration between EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

The rule states “this action will result in reductions in climate change-related impacts and most air pollutants compared to the absence of regulation.”

But EPA staff disagreed with that assessment.

“This is not correct,” they wrote when weighing in on the rule NHTSA compiled after the interagency collaboration. “‘The absence of regulation’ … would be the existing EPA standards which are more stringent than those finalized in this action.”

EPA nonetheless decided to finalize the rule without taking many of the suggestions from career staff, the latest in a line of rollbacks pitting political appointees against staff. Agency staff has similarly raised concerns over regulations dealing with asbestos and smog.

After the mileage standards rule was finalized, experts noted it would be vulnerable to a court challenge since the government’s own analysis of the rule found it will cost more money than it will save.

Other rulemaking documents show the EPA was warned of possible legal action before finalizing the rule.

“The legal justification is lacking,” OMB wrote when sending the rule back to EPA after its review, adding that it “reads very cursory.”

“It does not do enough to explain why 1.5 is the right stringency level as a matter of fact or why it is proper as a matter of law,” OMB wrote, referring to the rule asking for 1.5 percent year-over-year improvements in fuel efficiency from automakers, versus the 5 percent required under the Obama administration.

The OMB correspondence was first reported by E&E News.

EPA’s review also shows many of its comments went unheeded as career staff weighed in on the rule NHTSA compiled after the agencies’ collaboration.

An EPA staffer later complained in an email that NHTSA repeatedly ignored EPA staff comments.

“EPA’s goal regarding these detailed comments … is to improve the legal defensibility of the final rule,” the staffer wrote, adding that the rule has “numerous factual inaccuracies which litigants can easily disprove.”

When reached for comment, NHTSA said the rule “marked the culmination of over a year of close collaboration between EPA and NHTSA, just as the agencies collaborated in prior joint rulemakings in this and the previous administration. The rule considered and responded to hundreds of thousands of public comments, and incorporated extensive scientific and economic analyses from experts at both agencies.”

EPA staffers, however, have previously complained they were sidelined by NHTSA during the rulemaking process.

In its February review, EPA staff recommended NHTSA remove an entire section of the rule that underpins a central argument of the Trump administration — that weaker fuel standards will allow automakers to produce cheaper vehicles, spurring consumers to upgrade to newer vehicles with better safety features.

The EPA staff analysis refers to various portions of the review as “a straw man argument,” “one-sided and abstract,” “incomplete,” and “NOT a reasonable approach.”

“The current exercise is based on an unsupported assumption that it’s necessary to give up fuel savings to get other attributes. The analysis elsewhere shows that it is possible to maintain other vehicle qualities while providing fuel savings. So the underlying assumption of this analysis is unfounded,” EPA staff wrote, adding that the section “requires significant revision or complete removal.”

In another section, EPA staff argued against rule language that said weakening standards will allow U.S. automakers to focus on being more competitive in the global market.

“This statement is contrary to several comments arguing that weakening U.S. standards will make U.S. companies less competitive and cede global leadership,” staff said in their review. 

In a statement to The Hill, an EPA spokesperson said the rule “establishes a strong national program for our nation’s auto industry that protects our environment, supports our economy and enhances the safety of American families.”

The agency added that the documents reflect “deliberative discussions between the co-authors of a rule on how to draft the notice, or how to respond to comments received during interagency review.”

But Carper, along with numerous critics spanning from environmental organizations to consumer protection groups, say the rule worsens both air and auto quality at the expense of consumers.

“This rule does not help American consumers — it will lead to more greenhouse gas emissions and more harmful air pollution,” Carper said in a statement.

“It won’t save lives, it will put more lives at risk. And while automakers respond to the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression, this rule will not help American automakers. It will only create more regulatory uncertainty, economic disarray and lead to the very litigation that automakers sought to avoid,” he added. 

–Updated at 2:27 p.m.

Tags Cars Climate change MPG Pollution Tom Carper vehicle emissions standards

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