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Trump nominee to head agency overseeing tailpipe rules won’t say whether humans cause climate change

The afternoon commute on Highway 101 in Los Angeles. The Trump administration is threatening to revoke California’s ability to set higher vehicle-emissions standards than those imposed by the federal government. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt was grilled in one part of the Senate on Wednesday, a less prominent Trump administration official who has a major impact on automobile pollution and climate change policy was asked a basic question by a member of a separate Senate panel.

During a hearing on her nomination to head the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Heidi King, the agency’s deputy chief, was asked whether climate change is caused by humans.

She wouldn’t say.

While NHTSA is largely a safety agency, it also has a major role in setting policy on Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. The Trump administration is pushing to lower Barack Obama-era tailpipe requirements for cars and light trucks, which are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Below is the full exchange with Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), a former business attorney and governor, and King, who worked in the Office of Management and Budget, as a congressional economist, and as an executive at Pfizer and General Electric, where she says she came to experience “the market forces that challenge manufacturers.”

Sen. Maggie Hassan: I also understand Ms. King that you have not spoken publicly about your views on climate change. It’s an important issue to NHTSA, to the administrator role, because if confirmed you will be dealing with various issues, including CAFE standards, that will require you to strike a balance between industry needs and the needs of our country and our environment. So do you agree with the scientists and experts who overwhelmingly agree that human-caused climate change is real and needs to be addressed?
Heidi King: As an automotive and traffic safety regulator, you have my commitment to be data- and science-driven and thoughtful and transparent in all actions. And where it is necessary for us to consider climate impacts, which is very important to everyone, I will do so, relying on the experts I rely on, engineers, attorneys and others.
Hassan: And I’m going to ask you, do you agree that human-caused climate change is real and needs to be addressed? There is overwhelming data and science, and there is a vast group of scientific work that says that it does.
King: I agree that it’s very important for experts to speak on the issue. I apologize, I’m not a climate scientist. But I have great respect for the discipline and will listen to —
Hassan: And Ms. King, I will thank you for that. I’m not a climate scientist either, and I am very comfortable saying that the overwhelming amount of evidence that I read and have read over the course of, both as a private citizen and a public servant, not only suggests, but confirms that climate change is real. And I’m a little bit concerned, and I think other people will be too, that you seem unwilling to acknowledge that the evidence is there. So thank you. We’ll continue this conversation. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
King: Thank you.

Earlier, King had a more sympathetic — and short — back-and-forth with Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) on the narrower issue of fuel-economy standards.

Some carmakers have voiced concerns that the administration is pushing too aggressively to roll back the emissions targets for new vehicles. Under the Obama rules, they were set to average more than 50 miles per gallon overall by 2025, though there would be different ways to comply and the efficiency gains would probably be smaller.

But lowering the fuel-efficiency standards has been a long-standing policy goal of many conservatives.

Inhofe: Ms. King, in the past the EPA and DOT [Department of Transportation] have taking increasingly heavy hands in regulating the automotive industry through more stringent greenhouse-gas regulations and laws. And just a few days before President Trump’s inauguration, Obama’s EPA acted unilaterally to finalize the 2012 standards over a year ahead of schedule. Obviously, we know why. Under President Trump, the EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reopened the midterm evaluation process. Moving forward, we’re going to have to prioritize engagement with all public and private stakeholders and take into account — the phrase is “economic practicability.” I would just ask you, do you agree that we should go through with this process and keep in mind about the “economic practicability” as we move through?
King: Yes.
Inhofe: That’s good.