Overnight 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

Overnight 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
© Stefani Reynolds

CAR EMISSIONS FIGHT ESCALATES: On Thursday, officials representing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) along with the chair of the California Air and Resources Board (CARB) were set to testify for what seemed like a routine House hearing to discuss the administration's proposed changes to a vehicle emissions standard.

The Trump administration is working to finalize a national rule on vehicle emissions standards that would replace and weaken regulations previously determined under President Obama.

But the events that followed were anything but routine...



The EPA chief got it started with a letter: Andrew WheelerAndrew WheelerOvernight Energy: Controversial Trump adviser reportedly returning to EPA | Delta aims to be first carbon neutral airline | Dem senator gives EPA D-minus on 'forever chemicals' Architect of controversial EPA policies to return as chief of staff: report Overnight Energy: Green group sues Trump over major environmental rollback | New fuel efficiency standard could take months to complete | Trump unveils picks for EPA, Energy deputies MORE, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is disputing California's account of how negotiations between the Golden State and the EPA over federal vehicle emissions standards came to an abrupt halt.

In a letter Wheeler sent to Republican lawmakers Thursday morning, he denied previous comments made by California Air Resources Board (CARB) Chairwoman Mary Nichols that her state offered a counter proposal to the EPA's car emissions rollback, saying her claims are "false" and "conspiracy theories."

"I believe it is important for the members of the subcommittees to understand that when Ms. Nichols states that she offered a counterproposal to the proposed rule as if she operated as a good faith actor in this rule making, this is what is false," he wrote in the letter to Reps. Cathy McMorris RodgersCathy McMorris RodgersCelebrating and expanding upon five years of the ABLE  Act Koch network could target almost 200 races in 2020, official says Lawmakers voice skepticism over Facebook's deepfake ban MORE (R-Wash.) and John ShimkusJohn Mondy ShimkusExperts criticize EPA Lead and Copper Rule revisions Pelosi-Trump relationship takes turn for the terrible Conservative Club for Growth backs Texas House Republican's primary challenger MORE (R-Ill.)

The letter came before Nichols was set to testify Thursday in front of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce over the EPA's proposed Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient Vehicles rule. Nichols was expected to criticize the rule for failing to provide adequate air pollution controls.

McMorris Rodgers is the top Republican on the panel.

In his letter, Wheeler told the lawmakers that Nichols previously mischaracterized the circumstances leading up to the break down in communications between California and the Trump administration in February over negotiations on the rule.


He said Nichols never offered a complete counterproposal -- despite her saying so in her prepared testimony before the committee -- since it did not contain approval from outgoing California Gov. Jerry Brown (D), then-incoming Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin Christopher NewsomCalifornia moves to allow voters to switch party registration on Election Day GOP lawmaker accuses California public pension fund of investing in blacklisted Chinese companies Newsom: 'Trump is scared of California,' the 'most un-Trump state in America' MORE (D) or the state's attorney general.

"Ms. Nichols was unable or unwilling to be a good faith negotiator," Wheeler said.

Read more on Wheeler's letter here.


Then the hearing kicked off with tough questions from Trump officials: At the hearing, Democrats slammed the Trump administration's rollback of the Obama-era vehicle emissions standards, 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 Health Care: Appeals court strikes down Medicaid work requirements | Pelosi's staff huddles with aides on surprise billing | Senate Dems pressure Trump to drop ObamaCare lawsuit The Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in Overnight Health Care: Nevada union won't endorse before caucuses after 'Medicare for All' scrap | McConnell tees up votes on two abortion bills | CDC confirms 15th US coronavirus case 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.

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.

Read about the grilling here.


Then it was Nichols' turn to hit back at Wheeler: For the committee, it was a case of 'he said, she said,' as Mary Nichols, the chairwoman of the California's Air Resources Board, pushed back on the narrative from EPA chief Andrew Wheeler over how talks between the state and administration over pollution broke down.


Testifying before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, Nichols said she had to address what she called "elephant in the room," denying Wheeler's account that California was responsible for ending negotiations over a contentious vehicle emissions rule.

"California is not here because we are seeking to defy the federal government. We are in the business of setting emissions standards for vehicles based on the provisions of the Clean Air Act, which recognizes the important fact that California is very big and has some of the biggest markets for vehicles and also has some of the worst air quality in the United States," she said.

Nichols's testimony in comes as the Trump administration is working to finalize a national rule on vehicle emissions standards that would replace and weaken regulations Obama-era regulations. Trump officials, including Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Andrew Wheeler, argued the old rule was too onerous for the car industry and not effective.

California has a waiver under the Clean Air Act to set its own air pollution standards at a level higher than might be determined by the federal government. In the case of the Obama administration's car emissions rule, the state and the federal government worked together to agree on one national standard, much to the delight of the auto industry.

Yet, the Trump administration has questioned California's right to the waiver and the new rule would most likely split the state and the federal government. Negotiations between the Golden State and administration reportedly broke down in February following the EPA's August release of a final proposed emissions rule.

Neither group has spoken together since about the rule, and it became clear Thursday that there still remains disagreement over who is responsible for end to communications.

Read more on Nichols' take here.



Then, an EPA whistleblower accused Wheeler of lying: A longtime former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) staffer is accusing Administrator Andrew Wheeler of lying in a separate letter he wrote to Congress Tuesday that denied agency staff were shut out as EPA developed the controversial rollback on Obama-era fuel standards.

Critics of the rollback have long contended that the EPA sidelined its Office of Transportation and Air Quality when developing the rule. The office is home to the agency's in-house lab for testing vehicles emissions.

Wheeler denied that accusation this week, but Jeff Alson, a former senior policy advisor to that office, said Wheeler is not telling the truth.

"I know that is a lie because I was there. I was one of 20 people at EPA working on this for a decade," Alson told The Hill. Alson retired in April of last year after working 40 years at the agency.

Read more on the accusation here.



Happy Thursday! And welcome to Overnight Energy, The Hill's roundup of the latest energy and environment news. Please send tips and comments to Miranda Green, mgreen@thehill.com and Rebecca Beitsch, rbeitsch@thehill.com. Follow us on Twitter: @mirandacgreen, @rebeccabeitsch and @thehill.

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PRICES RISING LIKE THE SEA: Protecting U.S. coastlines from rising sea levels could cost an estimated $400 billion over the next 20 years, according to a study published Thursday.

The report by Resilient Analytics and the Center for Climate Integrity estimates that more than 50,000 miles of coastal barriers, or sea walls to mitigate rising ocean levels, will need to be constructed in 22 states.

More than 130 counties face at least $1 billion in costs, according to the report, and 14 states will see expenses of $10 billion or greater between now and 2040.

"These costs reflect the bare minimum coastal defenses that communities need to build to hold back rising seas and prevent chronic flooding and inundation over the next 20 years," researchers wrote in the report.

"They represent a small portion, perhaps 10 to 15 percent, of the total adaptation costs these local and state governments will be forced to finance during that time and into the future."

The researchers noted that the costs for some small communities and counties will be too large for them to cover individually.

Read more about the report here.



Oregon governor authorizes state police to bring GOP lawmakers back to capital for climate vote, we report.

NY lawmakers approve sweeping climate bill aiming for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, we report.



Stories from Thursday...

London to hold its largest-ever car-free day to tackle air pollution

EPA head clashes with California over how car emissions negotiations broke down

GOP state lawmakers leave Oregon to avoid vote on high-profile climate bill: report

Democrats grill Trump officials over fuel standard rollback

California official blasts EPA head over car standard negotiations

Protecting US from rising sea levels will cost $400 billion over next 20 years, study finds

Former EPA staffer says Wheeler lied to Congress