A Republican-led effort to hobble U.S. EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions would hamper the Obama administration's attempts to enforce new federal fuel economy rules, according to the Transportation Department.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski's (R-Alaska) proposal to block EPA from enforcing greenhouse gas regulations doesn't directly affect DOT's ability to set fuel economy rules for the auto industry, but it would leave the department with little time to rewrite 2012 standards by an April 2010 deadline, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said in a letter sent last Friday to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
"At this late date, it is unlikely NHTSA would have sufficient time to decouple its rulemaking from the joint rulemaking effort in time to meet the April 1 deadline," NHTSA said.
NHTSA and EPA have until the April deadline to finalize a joint rulemaking that would kick in for model year 2012 and push nation's fleetwide fuel economy average to 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016, four years ahead of the schedule Congress laid out in a 2007 energy law. The joint rule would also impose the first-ever greenhouse gas standard on the nation's cars and trucks.
Although the two agencies worked together to fashion the auto standards, NHTSA would still be able to issue its own free-standing rule without first issuing its own draft corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, rule because each agency independently justified its own portions of the rule. But NHTSA argues in its letter that doing so would "lead to a number of serious, adverse consequences," most notably unraveling a deal President Obama struck with California and automakers to allow for the national emissions standards.
Obama initially announced his decision last May to blend the legal authority the Supreme Court granted EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions in its 2007 Massachusetts v. EPA decision with DOT's right to regulate fuel economy under the CAFE program, while still preserving California's right to regulate air pollution under the Clean Air Act.
At the time, Obama was joined at the White House by top executives from 10 major automakers, including the heads of GM and Chrysler LLC. The government now controls ownership stakes in both companies.
But the administration and several lawmakers have warned that if the Murkowski measure passes, it would unravel the agreement, setting off a string of actions that would allow California and more than a dozen other states to enforce their own auto emissions standards.
The auto industry had long challenged such state attempts, arguing they would create a "regulatory patchwork" that would depress overall sales and put some dealers at a competitive disadvantage. It was largely due to fears of such a patchwork that the industry signed onto the national standards.
"If [the Murkowski resolution] were to be successful, there is no car rule, because what sits underneath that comprehensive car rule is that endangerment finding," Obama's top energy and climate adviser, Carol Browner, said earlier this week.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) offered a similar rationale.
"It completely obliterates all of EPA's functions," Rockefeller said Tuesday. "If it were to pass, I don't think the president would sign it, an automobile company in Detroit making cars they send all over America, each state would have its own CAFE standards. Not the way to run a country."
Rockefeller explained that he is pushing a more limited legislative plan that would delay EPA's stationary source regulations for six to 12 months beyond what the agency is planning.
"It clears out matters of that sort, and leaves them with the powers they need to have, but concentrates on the emission problems and gives us more time," he said.
Murkowski complained that she had tried to deal with the CAFE concerns last fall when she offered an amendment to EPA's spending bill that included a savings clause "to make clear that it was not our intent to delay or really hinder in any way what EPA was doing with mobile sources."
But Senate Democrats rejected Murkowski's language, prompting her to push the much more sweeping Congressional Review Act resolution that would go after the EPA's endangerment finding. Asked why she didn't just support Rockefeller's new bill, the Alaska Republican replied that she didn't think he would be able to get a floor vote, given opposition in Democratic ranks.
Under the Congressional Review Act, Murkowski is guaranteed a floor vote that only requires 51 supporters to pass, though it also must go through the House and win Obama's signature. "I'm looking for something that will actually be able to be heard," she said.
Murkowski also dismissed arguments made by Browner and EPA that the car rules would be dismissed if her resolution was adopted.
"So maybe from the administrator's perspective, her statement is appropriate from the EPA's auspices, but it's not the only way we can implement these CAFE standards," she said.
Click here to read NHTSA's letter.
Reporter Robin Bravender contributed.