Trump Administration Rethinks Emissions Freeze

New approach could increase fleetwide fuel efficiency by 1.5% per year: The Wall Street Journal
Photograph: Shutterstock

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is rethinking its approach to federal fuel efficiency and emissions targets, shifting away from a freeze and toward a modest annual increase, The Wall Street Journal reported.

In 2018, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced details of the Trump administration’s replacement for Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. The Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule would freeze the overall industry fuel-economy average for vehicle model years 2021-2026 at 37 miles per gallon, vs. the 46.7 mpg standard under current rules finalized by the Obama administration in 2012.

Now, the Trump administration is weighing a plan to increase fleetwide fuel efficiency by 1.5% per year, incorporating both gasoline mileage and emissions reductions, according to “people familiar with the process,” the newspaper reported. This is much lower than the annual 5% increases currently called for under the current rules but avoids the freezing of standards, which has been highly controversial.

In the absence of a compromise with the Trump administration over its original plans to freeze emissions standards, California pursued its own voluntary emissions agreement with Ford, Volkswagen, Honda and BMW this past September that requires a 3.7% reduction in their fleet’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions over five years. Surprised and angered by the agreement, the Trump administration revoked California’s waiver under the Clean Air Act that allows it to set tougher emissions standards.

That in turn triggered California, 22 other states, the District of Columbia, Los Angeles and New York to file a lawsuit challenging the waiver revocation. In a filing in October, 11 automakers—including GM, Toyota, Hyundai Motors, Mazda, Nissan, Kia and Subaru—asked the court to intervene in the litigation, supporting the Trump administration’s argument that only the federal government should determine fuel economy standards.

Compromise in the Works?

This new 1.5% emissions reduction figure could change as the Trump administration finalizes the rule, sources told the Journal, a process they expect to wrap up by the end of 2019. One reason the SAFE Vehicles final rulemaking is still not finished is because regulators have reportedly had issues with the data analysis backing up the supposed benefits. Over the past few months, changes in the modeling suggested there was room to increase efficiency targets, sources told the paper.

Despite this new approach shifting closer to the spirit of the Obama-era increases, it is still far from the targets that California and other states are demanding. The California Air Resources Board (CARB), the state’s regulatory authority over air quality, told the Journal that a 1.5% annual increase would not be sufficient for it to meet federal air-quality standards.

In comments in October, U.S. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler suggested that the final rule would be more restrictive than the proposed freeze in response to concerns from automakers, who are largely requesting annual increases in emissions reductions, but at a more manageable level than the Obama-era rule requires.

“I’m, again, the eternal optimist: Once everybody sees our final CAFE regulation, everybody will see that it makes sense and maybe we won’t have litigation on that part of it,” said Wheeler.

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