Trump weakens fuel economy standards, rolling back key U.S. effort against climate change

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WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Tuesday weakened one of the nation’s most aggressive efforts to combat climate change, releasing new fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks that handed a victory to the oil and gas industry.

The new rule, from the Environmental Protection Agency and Transportation Department, will almost immediately be plunged into litigation as environmental groups and states with stricter standards, led by California, plan to challenge it.

If the administration’s policy survives those fights, it would spare automakers from having to meet ambitious gas mileage and emissions requirements put in place in 2012 under President Barack Obama. It is among the biggest steps the administration has taken to reverse an existing environmental policy.

The proposal is a dialed-down version of the one the administration originally planned. Instead of proposing zero improvements in fuel efficiency in coming years, it would require automakers to increase fuel economy across their fleets by 1.5% a year, with a goal of achieving an average of 40 miles per gallon by 2026. That’s still a major departure from current rules, which mandate annual increases of 5%, reaching an average of 54 mpg by 2025.

“We are delivering on President Trump’s promise to correct the current fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions standards,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement. The administration’s plan, he said, “strikes the right regulatory balance that protects our environment and sets reasonable targets for the auto industry.”

“Gutting the clean car standards makes no sense. It will harm the air we breathe, stall progress in fighting the climate crisis and increase the cost of driving,” Natural Resources Defense Council President Gina McCarthy said in a statement issued before the expected release. “We’ll be seeing the Trump administration in court.”

Opponents also criticized the decision to make the new standards final in the midst of a global pandemic, arguing that the rollback would damage public health at a time when thousands of people are gravely ill and the nation’s economy is in tatters.

But after repeatedly postponing the release of the new rule as it scrambled to justify the change, the administration faced deadlines that may have forced its hand.

For one, the longer the government delayed the new rule, the less effect it would have. Although Trump had initially announced that the new standards would affect vehicles in model year 2020, those cars were built under the Obama-era stringent fuel efficiency standards and are already on the road. Unless the administration finalized its rollback by April 1, it was in danger of missing the deadline to apply the new standards to the 2022 model year.

Additionally, under the Congressional Review Act, new rules issued after May 19 could be invalidated by the next Congress. The Republican-controlled Congress used the review act in 2017 to undo a number of rules issued in the final months of the Obama administration.

The new standards will apply nationwide. Although California has historically set its own tougher car pollution rules, the Trump administration last year moved to strip the state of that authority. California and many of the other states that have adopted its clean-car standards have sued the administration over this change, and that issue likely won’t be resolved until next year at the earliest.

The change in fuel-economy standards has been in development since the early days of the administration, when two lobbying groups representing automakers asked then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to relax the Obama-era standards. They argued that the targets were difficult and expensive to meet and would require them to ramp up production of electric cars at a time when Americans were increasingly choosing sport utility vehicles and pickups.

The administration’s original proposal would have frozen fuel-economy standards at this year’s levels. That met a furious response from officials in California and several other states as well as unexpected resistance from auto companies, which worried the administration was going overboard and dragging them into years of court battles with states.

Trump has boasted that his plan would save lives, improve the economy and reduce the price of a new car by about $1,000.

However, the EPA’s own analysis is not as optimistic.

Its estimates show that while loosening fuel-economy standards could make cars cheaper, drivers would lose money in the end by having to buy more gas.

Automakers and their suppliers could also suffer. The government’s analysis shows that American car companies could experience a loss of thousands of jobs by making dirtier cars that would be locked out of many overseas markets.

The change is also expected to result in significantly more greenhouse gas emissions, which trap the sun’s heat, worsening the effects of climate change. Hotter temperatures also contribute to more smog, which can damage the lungs and cause other serious health problems.

In a February report to Wheeler, the agency’s science advisory board warned that the technical analysis underpinning the government’s proposal was so flawed that it had possibly led the EPA to the wrong conclusion.

“In other words,” the board wrote, “the standards in the 2012 rule might provide a better outcome for society than the proposed revision.”


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