Trump eyes repeal of Obama-era fuel economy standards

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President Donald Trump greets CEO of Ford Motor Company Mark Fields during a meeting with auto industry leaders on Jan. 24, 2017. (Shawn Thew-Pool/Getty Images)

Trump’s trip to Motor City is a gift for automakers

President Donald Trump will reverse a  Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decision from January to continue implementing Obama-era fuel economy rules, the president announced at the American Center for Mobility in Detroit on Wednesday.

The 2012 standards mandated that, by 2025, automobile companies would have to nearly double the average fuel economy (miles per gallon of gas) of their cars and trucks to nearly 55 miles per gallon; it also provided targeted incentives for automakers develop more innovative technologies — like electric, natural gas, and hybrid vehicles — to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Wednesday, however, is expected to be the beginning of the policy’s long unspooling, which will involve more than a year of regulatory review from both the EPA and the Department of Transportation, The New York Times reports. By next April, the administration will propose replacement standards, a White House official told the Times.

Automakers have lamented the fuel economy rules, claiming the anticipated $33 billion cost of implementing them was too high and the policy itself not aligned with consumer demand.

As recently as late January, Ford Motor Company CEO Mark Fields –who, along with General Motors Company CEO Mary Barra, met with Trump during his first week as president–  suggested to Bloomberg that one million American jobs would be in jeopardy if they weren’t given “some level of flexibility” on the policy. Fields did not provide the source of that figure.

EPA decision on 2012 rules ‘single most important’ in recent history

The fight between the auto industry and the EPA is long-running. As early as 1963, when Congress passed the first iteration of the Clean Air Act — which would later arm the EPA,  starting in 1970, with the responsibility to protect and improve national air quality — automakers fiercely resisted the agency’s proposed regulations, alleging, as now, that they could not meet the new standards to reduce harmful emissions.

Though the Clean Air Act is estimated to have saved more than $22 trillion in health care costs by slashing harmful pollutants in the air, the fight between EPA regulators and the auto industry (with its powerful, well-resourced lobby) continues.

The most recent rift arose exactly a week before Trump’s inauguration, when the EPA decided to lock in the fuel economy rules  the result of a midterm review mandated as part of the 2012 policy’s implementation. Incensed, auto industry leadership wrote to new EPA head Scott Pruitt after he took office, requesting that the agency withdraw the Jan. 13 decision. They claimed that the analysis that informed its determination was rushed so it could be disseminated just before Trump ‘s inauguration.

“For the auto industry, the Final Determination may be the single most important decision that EPA has made in recent history,” wrote Mitch Bainwol, president and CEO of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (which represents almost 80 percent of auto companies in the U.S, including Ford and General Motors) in a Feb. 21 letter to Pruitt. The EPA’s determination, Bainwol claimed, was “riddled with indefensible assumptions, inadequate analysis, and a failure to engage with contrary evidence.”

Undoing Obama’s environmental legacy

Wednesday’s decision to reopen review of the 2012 fuel rules was celebrated by the auto industry, which applauded the “opportunity” for stakeholders to work with Pruitt and the EPA to reach a “thoughtful,” “coordinated” outcome.

With the new review expected to take months, it’s not known what the outcome will ultimately be, but climate change opponents are not optimistic. The Trump Administration is replete with climate change deniers, they claim —most notable of them the president himself, who has called climate change a Chinese “hoax,” and EPA chief Pruitt, who has connections to the fossil fuel industry.

At present, Trump and Pruitt appear poised to unravel Obama’s regulatory legacy on climate change. Close to every reference to climate change was purged from the White House website in the hours following Trump’s inauguration; the president has already undone an Obama-era rule protecting waterways from coal mining waste; and Pruitt, a vocal climate denialist, sued the EPA as Oklahoma’s attorney general to block implementation of Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

For environmentalists, all of these things paint a gruesome picture. Still, resistance is mobilizing, led by states like California, scientists, environmental groups, and a concerned public.

“If [Pruitt] fails to enforce, we’ll have to step into that breach,” said Sierra Club Environmental Law Director Pat Gallagher. “We’ll bring citizen suits against the worst polluters to protect our communities. We will investigate and demand that his conduct as EPA administrator complies with all the ethical rules that govern attorneys and government employees.”