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Trump administration drafts plan to unravel Obama-era fuel-efficiency rules, challenge California

A BP gas station in Hoboken, N.J. (Julio Cortez/Associated Press)

The Trump administration has drafted a proposal that would freeze fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles starting in 2021 and challenge California’s ability to set its own fuel-efficiency rules, changes that would hobble one of the Obama administration’s most significant initiatives to curb climate change.

The draft document, while not final, suggests the Trump administration is poised to make significant changes to planned auto standards over the next decade. A federal official who has reviewed the document described it in detail to The Washington Post.

Drafted in large part by the Transportation Department’s National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA), the plan outlines a preferred alternative in which the federal government would freeze fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks at levels now set for model year 2021, keeping them there through 2026.

The draft offers seven other options that would also weaken the standards, though not to the same extent as the preferred alternative.

Under a 2011 agreement reached among the Obama administration, California officials and automakers, manufacturers’ fleet of cars and light trucks in the United States are slated to average more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025 — well above the level of the Trump administration’s proposed freeze.

If finalized, the Trump administration’s proposal would set up a major conflict with California, one of the nation’s most progressive states on climate change and air pollution.

The Obama administration granted California a waiver under the Clean Air Act to set its own tailpipe emissions limits, and the state’s higher standards have led automakers to build more fuel-efficient automobiles to maintain access to California’s massive market.

But the Trump administration document asserts that, despite the Clean Air Act waiver, a separate federal law preempts California from drafting its own emissions standards.

Earlier this month, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt announced he would revoke the Obama-era standards, but he did not specify what would take their place. Pruitt concluded they were “not appropriate” in light of new information, including automakers’ input that consumer demand for sport-utility vehicles and pickup trucks now far outweighs interest in electric and other low-emission vehicles.

Pruitt has publicly hinted dissatisfaction with California’s more stringent auto standards, though in other instances he has argued that states should have more discretion in crafting environmental rules.

“Federalism doesn’t mean that one state can dictate to the rest of the country,” Pruitt told members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in January.

When asked again Thursday whether the EPA intends to start proceedings to revoke California’s waiver, Pruitt told the House Energy subcommittee on the environment: “Not at present. In fact, we’ve worked very closely with California officials on that issue.”

Stanley Young, a spokesman for the California Air Resources Board, took exception to Pruitt’s characterization of relations between the two government agencies. “Pruitt himself has never met with anyone from CARB — even when he was in California in March,” Young wrote by email. He added that EPA and CARB officials have had three “nonsubstantive” meetings over the past four months.

“This is not, by any stretch of the definition, ‘working with California,’ ” Young said.

California’s top prosecutor hinted Friday it may challenge the EPA’s new auto standards in court, should they come to fruition.

“The Trump Administration’s plan would rob Americans at the gas pump and risk our children’s health by polluting the air we breathe,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D) said in a statement. “We’ll closely monitor any developments and I’m ready to take any and all action necessary to defend our progress.”

The current standards were set to avert 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles sold between 2012 and 2025, according to the EPA. Since the rules were issued, the transportation sector has outstripped electric power to become the top source of greenhouse-gas emissions in the United States.

Some automakers such as Ford and Honda have publicly cautioned against a rollback of the current national tailpipe limits, as have environmental groups concerned about increased greenhouse-gas emissions. But automaker advocacy groups have asked the Trump administration to revisit the standards.

The draft, or any other proposal to reverse the existing fuel-efficiency rules, would be subject to public comment before being finalized, and a protracted court battle could further delay any changes.

NHTSA officials on Friday stressed in an emailed statement to The Post that the plan was not final, promising the upcoming review process would be “public, robust, and transparent.”

“NHTSA and EPA continue to work together on Corporate Average Fuel Economy and tailpipe standards for future model year passenger cars and light trucks. NHTSA’s top priority is safety and this Administration must also consider economic practicability when setting these Standards,” they wrote. “The agencies intend to take comment on a broad range of options. Given that the work is ongoing, at this time there is nothing to announce until a proposal is actually released.”

The EPA has not signed off on the draft, and the plan has not yet been sent to the White House for review.

“The Agency is continuing to work with NHTSA to develop a joint proposed rule and is looking forward to the interagency process,” EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said in an email.

Democrats immediately pushed back on the administration’s draft plan.

“Rather than pursuing a reasonable compromise, the Trump Administration is crafting a proposal that is dramatically weaker than any automobile manufacturer has requested and that also deliberately seeks to embark on a legal collision course with the State of California — a scenario that automakers, lawmakers and the State of California have all repeatedly urged the administration to avoid,” Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) said of the new document in a statement.