California Faces Emissions Battle with EPA

By: Bridget Clerkin August 1, 2018
The EPA is poised to significantly roll back emissions targets nationwide, challenging the Clean Air Act of 1970 and prompting over a dozen states to fight for their right to set their own pollution standards.
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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may have gone through some major leadership changes recently, but it seems the office’s fight to lower fuel efficiency standards is an evergreen issue.

Picking up where predecessor Scott Pruitt left off, new EPA head Andrew Wheeler is expected to announce a plan to freeze emissions standards on cars and light trucks before the end of the summer—and possibly before the end of the week.

If enacted, the new proposal would significantly roll back strict efficiency targets adopted by the Obama administration in the waning weeks of its tenure. But the current EPA team is also looking to undo rules established long ago.

Officials at the agency are preparing to challenge the ability of California and more than a dozen other states to set their own standards on tailpipe pollution—a regulatory right first granted to the Golden State in 1970.

All told, the joint moves could spark enormous changes in the automotive world. But talk of the proposals has already led to promises of legal retaliation from a number of states—and the ensuing fight could literally split the auto industry in two.

SAFEty in Numbers?

At the heart of the proposal—called the Safer and Affordable Fuel Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles rule—is the concept of freezing emissions standards at 2020 levels.

The switch would translate to a maintained average of 35 miles per gallon across the entire nation’s fleet of cars, with the freeze lasting through 2026. Conversely, Obama-era rules currently in place call for automakers to reach a 50 miles-per-gallon average by 2025.

Experts estimate the difference created by the proposed freeze to increase U.S. fuel consumption by about 500,000 barrels of oil per day by 2026, raise emissions levels by 11% by 2035, and cost $450 billion in compounding fuel expenses by 2050.

Trump officials say the new rule will lead to savings on new car purchases, if not at the gas pump. The proposal predicts that producing cars up to Obama-era standards would add $2,000 to the price of a vehicle. (In 2016, when the emissions standards were first set, the EPA had that number at $900, while the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration [NHTSA] pegged it at $1,200 per car.)

And while Obama officials in both the EPA and NHTSA predicted that fuel savings would offset any impact the cleaner tech would have on a sticker price, Trump-era administrators anticipate that the current rules would negatively impact new car purchases in general.

Part of the reasoning outlined in the SAFE Vehicles rule states that Americans would be less inclined to splash out on more expensive cars made up to current standards. Instead, the report predicts more people would be more likely to keep driving their old cars for longer periods of time, putting more people in danger on the roads.

But the freeze isn’t the only part lawmakers are debating.

Tailgating Party

Along with the anticipated emissions change, the EPA is expected to challenge California’s long-held legal right to create its own pollution standards.

First awarded to the Golden State in the Clean Air Act of 1970, the waiver has allowed California to consistently enact more rigorous emissions rules than the rest of the country. The laws were subsequently adopted by at least 12 other states, which have pledged to follow California’s lead.

Currently, the group is in sync with national standards, sharing the goal of reaching an average of 50 miles per gallon by 2025. And California has made clear that, regardless of what the EPA decides, the state intends to keep its standards that way.

This May, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra sued the EPA in an attempt to halt the cuts to emissions levels. He was joined by attorneys representing 16 other states.

All told, the group accounts for more than one-third of new vehicle purchases nationwide, giving it particularly lofty leverage in the face of any federal push for a change. Indeed, a number of prominent automakers have openly worried about the looming legal war, saying it would essentially force them to cater to two separate markets within the United States.

And while the legal challenge from the states initially drew reports of a coming compromise, it seems that idea has been left behind, as the federal agency is poised to drive ahead with its own plans.

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