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Biden plan would tighten mileage for new cars over the next four years

Proposed greenhouse gas emissions standards, expected next week, are key to the administration’s climate agenda

The 101 freeway in Los Angeles in 2019. The Biden administration will propose a regulation requiring the overall efficiency of vehicles to be increased. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)
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The Biden administration has drafted sweeping emissions rules for new cars in line with more strident measures set by California, marking a key step in the president’s effort to cut greenhouse gas pollution that’s driving dangerous warming around the world.

But the proposed rule by the Environmental Protection Agency and Transportation Department may fall short of producing the pollution cuts in the near term that would have been seen under the original standards set by President Barack Obama shortly before he left office.

The move, which would reverse a regulation enacted last year by the Trump administration, resembles a 2019 pact between California and five automakers that mandates a 3.7 percent annual mileage increase through the 2026 model year, according to several federal, industry and nonprofit officials briefed on the plan who spoke on the condition of anonymity because it was not yet public. The Trump-era rule, by contrast, requires a 1.5 percent annual efficiency improvement.

The plan would increase the overall efficiency of cars and light trucks in line with the California deal for the 2023 and 2024 model years, these individuals said, and then raise the requirement for the following two years.

The Associated Press reported details of the plan Tuesday.

For cars made beyond 2026, the administration is expected to set far-reaching — though nonbinding — goals still under discussion for encouraging the sale of electric vehicles and cleaning up emissions from the nation’s roads.

The White House declined to comment Tuesday, referring questions to the EPA and the Transportation Department. Those two agencies declined to comment on the details of the plan.

Tracking Biden's environmental policies

Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), head of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement that the tighter standards are “critical to enabling our nation to compete in the global economy, create good-paying American jobs, and protect our planet for future generations.”

But it’s unclear whether the forthcoming proposal will do what experts say is needed to spur a transformation of the nation’s auto fleet and help the country reach its goals under the Paris climate agreement. The Obama-era rules required a higher annual increase of 5 percent.

“After months of automaker lobbying, the Biden administration has reportedly decided to recommend a loophole-riddled Swiss cheese auto pollution standard masquerading as a seven-course champagne dinner,” said Dan Becker, who directs the Safe Climate Transportation Campaign at the Center for Biological Diversity, an advocacy group. “Biden booted a chance to build back better. Half steps won’t save us from climate catastrophe.“

Several automakers have struggled to improve vehicle efficiency, even though some have launched ambitious plans to shift to producing electric vehicles. Last year, the U.S. passenger car fleet’s overall mileage declined for the first time in five years, according to the EPA, and its overall pollution rose. Eleven of the 14 major manufacturers managed to meet federal requirements by taking steps like installing more climate-friendly refrigerants or solar panels on their roofs, rather than improving gas miles.

Peter Zalzal, senior counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement that the Biden administration can do more to push manufacturers given that GM has announced it plans to stop producing gas- and diesel-powered passenger cars by 2035 and Volkswagen intends to make half of all new vehicles it sells by 2030 zero-emitting.

“These zero-emitting solutions are at hand, and they can be made in America — creating high-quality jobs, saving families money at the gas pump, and ensuring healthier, longer lives for all,” Zalzal said.

Almost exactly two years ago, as the Trump administration was working to freeze fuel-efficiency standards and to revoke California’s long-standing authority to set its own stricter rules under the Clean Air Act, the nation’s most populous state announced it had struck its own deal with major automakers.

The 2019 agreement between the California Air Resources Board and Ford, Honda, Volkswagen, Volvo and BMW of North America came after weeks of under-the-radar negotiations.

The carmakers said one main motivation was the need for regulatory predictability. In an interview at the time, California’s top air pollution regulator, Mary Nichols, framed the deal as a potential “olive branch” to the Trump administration, which she hoped would embrace the agreement.

“What we have here is a statement of principles intended to reach out to the federal government to move them off the track that they seem to be on and onto a more constructive track,” Nichols said then.

But the Trump administration and California never found common ground. President Donald Trump pushed ahead with his rollback of the Obama-era standards, and several other automakers, including GM and Toyota, sided with the White House on litigation over the issue.

Brady Dennis contributed to this report.

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