The Trump administration is set as soon as Tuesday to undercut President Barack Obama’s most significant effort to combat climate change, finalizing a rule that would weaken the federal government’s gas mileage standards for the nation’s cars and pickup trucks, according to two federal officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the rule was not yet public.
The rule will require U.S. cars, pickup trucks and SUVs to improve average fuel efficiency by 1.5 percent per year between model years 2021 and 2026, compared to a nearly 5 percent annual increase put in place under the Obama administration.
“They’re doing a rule to damage public health,” said Chester France, a former senior career official at the Environmental Protection Agency who helped oversee the Obama-era mileage standards and now works as a consultant for the Environmental Defense Fund. “In this crisis that we’re having, it’s unconscionable.”
Asked about the change, known as the Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles rule, EPA spokeswoman Corry Schiermeyer said in an email that she could not comment on specifics because it is still under review.
“This rule when finalized will benefit all Americans by improving the U.S. fleet’s fuel economy, reducing air pollution, making new vehicles more affordable for all Americans and save lives,” she said.
The revised mileage standards will affect drivers across the country, partly by lowering the sticker price of new vehicles but also by causing fuel costs to rise over the long term. It also would release an additional 1.5 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions into the air over five years, according to an analysis by the Environmental Defense Fund — equivalent to the pollution released by 68 coal plants operating during that time.
The Trump administration has argued that forcing automakers to increase the fuel economy of their fleets to Obama-era standards would make new vehicles more expensive and encourage people to drive older, less safe cars and trucks. By contrast, the new rule — part of a joint effort between the Transportation Department and the EPA — estimates there will be fewer accident-related deaths over the lifetime of vehicles sold between 2021 and 2029 as more people trade older cars for newer, safer ones.
However, the government’s own estimates say more Americans will die as a result of increased air pollution during that same period than if the existing standards remained in place, according to two people briefed on the rule who spoke on the condition of anonymity because it was not yet public.
This week’s finalization of the federal fuel-efficiency standards began nearly two years ago, when the Trump administration first proposed weakening the 2009 requirements. The Obama administration argued that higher fuel-efficiency standards would improve public health, combat climate change and save consumers money without compromising safety.
The Trump administration’s move follows its attempt to revoke California’s long-standing ability to set its own, more stringent tailpipe standards — and have other states follow its lead. California, joined by nearly two dozen states, is suing the administration for the right to set its own fuel efficiency standards.
The new rule has also caused a rift within the auto industry, as a handful of companies have forged a deal with California to abide by tougher mileage standards, while other automakers have sided with the White House in the ongoing legal tug-of-war.
“The auto industry has consistently called for year-over-year fuel economy and [greenhouse gas] improvements,” said John Bozzella, president of the Alliance of Automotive Innovation, an industry group.
Still, he said, the standards developed a decade ago under the Obama administration made assumptions that “aren’t supported by the data today.” Fuel prices have remained low, and buyers have gravitated to SUVs and pickup trucks in far larger numbers than smaller, more efficient cars.
“The standards that were originally developed are no longer appropriate in light of shifting market conditions and consumer preferences,” Bozzella said.
The new mileage rule is just one in a suite of efforts officials are undertaking to ease environmental protections in the last months of President Trump’s first term, even amid the coronavirus pandemic.
On Friday, for example, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management finalized an environmental analysis that marks a key step in building a private mining road through the wilds of Alaska.
The administration is pursuing other rollbacks, including increasing offshore drilling and altering a regulation that limited mercury and other pollutants from power plants. The White House has yet to finalize an overhaul of how it conducts environmental reviews of major federal decisions, as well as another effort to relax an Obama-era regulation on methane emissions.
Agencies within the Interior Department are moving ahead with plans to expand development on public land. While environmental groups have called on the government to cancel federal oil and gas auctions altogether — or at least extend comment periods for them — the Bureau of Land Management recently raised about $3.5 million by selling off the right to drill on a total of about 87,000 acres in Colorado, Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming.
Administration officials have changed at least one policy on how the public can comment on rule changes during the pandemic.
BLM’s New Mexico office said last week it would allow those who oppose an oil and gas lease sale scheduled for May to submit formal complaints online, instead of by mail or in person.
On Thursday, the EPA issued a memo instructing petrochemical plants, power companies and other major industries that they could monitor their own pollution levels during the virus outbreak.
Cynthia Giles, who headed EPA’s enforcement division during Obama’s second term, said in an interview that the new memo failed to emphasize that facilities need to keep complying with existing pollution rules.
EPA spokeswoman Andrea Woods, however, said the new policy only states that companies will not be held liable “for routine compliance monitoring and reporting. It is not a nationwide waiver of environmental rules.”
“During this extraordinary time, EPA believes that it is more important for facilities to ensure that their pollution control equipment remains up and running and the facilities are operating safely, than to carry out routine sampling and reporting,” she added. The agency added that the policy is “temporary and will be lifted as soon as normal operations can resume.”
The expected rollback this week of federal fuel-efficiency standards brought a wave of criticism from environmental advocates and vows of legal action on Monday, even before it was made official.
“In the middle of a national crisis, the Trump administration is moving forward with a legally flawed, environmentally damaging rollback that will unleash regulatory uncertainty and mire the automotive industry in more economic disarray,” Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement.
Even if the rule gives many automakers a measure of regulatory certainty for the moment, Bozzella said the industry is now awash in a moment of massive uncertainty due to the coronavirus.
“We’re facing a demand shock. People are not buying cars, understandably,” he said. “Frankly, the biggest uncertainty we’re facing right now is what will the industry look like? How long will this market uncertainty be with us?”
Dino Grandoni and Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.