Blame game defines contentious 5-hour hearing

By Maxine Joselow | 06/21/2019 07:04 AM EDT

Trump administration officials sparred with lawmakers yesterday over the rollback of Obama-era clean car standards.

Heidi King, deputy administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and Bill Wehrum, assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, during a hearing yesterday.

Heidi King, deputy administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and Bill Wehrum, assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Air and Radiation, during a hearing yesterday. Francis Chung/E&E News

During a hearing that lasted more than five hours, Trump administration officials sparred with lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee over the rollback of Obama-era clean car standards.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler sent a sharply worded letter ahead of the hearing, setting up the combative tone that persisted through much of the proceedings.

In the letter to top Republicans on the panel, Wheeler accused a California air pollution regulator of negotiating over the car rules in bad faith (Greenwire, June 20).


The EPA chief said that Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, "was unable or unwilling to be a good faith negotiator. Her testimony that EPA professional staff were cut out of this proposal’s development is false."

The Trump administration negotiated with CARB for about a year before the White House abruptly cut off the talks in February (Greenwire, Feb. 21).

Democratic Rep. Debbie Dingell, who has close ties to the auto industry in her home state of Michigan, said she was offended by Wheeler’s letter.

"I’m really not interested in a pissing contest between California and this administration, to be perfectly blunt," Dingell said.

Big trucks

In her testimony, Nichols fired back at Wheeler’s accusations.

"We have met more than a dozen times with members of this administration. … Each time, the Trump administration has been unwilling to find a way that works," Nichols said.

"Their claim that California offered no counterproposal is false. They unilaterally decided to cut off conversation, an action which the automakers have asked them to reverse," she added.

President Obama made the vehicle greenhouse gas and fuel economy standards a central component of his climate agenda. He envisioned getting cars to travel an average of 54.5 mpg in laboratory conditions by 2025.

Under Trump, EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are proposing to flatline fuel economy requirements through 2026, allowing cars to travel an average of 37 mpg.

The two agencies are also proposing to revoke California’s Clean Air Act waiver for greenhouse gases, which allows the state to set tougher tailpipe pollution rules than the federal government.

The District of Columbia and 14 other states follow those tougher rules, representing more than half of the country’s auto market.

Yesterday’s hearing featured two political appointees who have been deeply involved in the rollback: EPA air chief Bill Wehrum and NHTSA Deputy Administrator Heidi King.

Republicans generally praised Wehrum and King for responding to marketplace conditions, noting that consumers in their districts were buying less fuel-efficient vehicles.

"We like big trucks. … We like to haul trailers," said Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), ranking member on the E&C Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change.

Democrats, on the other hand, hammered the officials for crafting a proposal that they said was based on flawed assumptions and harmful to public health and the environment.

Emissions and climate science

Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.) asked Wehrum whether the proposal would increase emissions of carbon dioxide as well as criteria air pollutants.

"It’s a mixed bag," Wehrum said in response. "Our projection says some pollutants would go up, some would go down, and when you throw it all together, it’s kind of a wash."

In fact, an analysis by the Rhodium Group, an economic consulting firm, found that the rollback would increase carbon dioxide emissions by 321 million to 931 million metric tons.

Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.) pressed Wehrum on his acceptance of mainstream climate science. A testy exchange ensued.

McNerney: "Do you believe that human-caused climate change is happening and it’s a danger?"

Wehrum: "Well, the Obama administration was trying to use the Clean Air Act —"

McNerney: "I’m not asking about the Obama administration. Do you believe that climate change is a danger to this country?"

Wehrum: "I’m regulating greenhouse gases every day of the week."

McNerney: "So you’re not going to answer that question directly."


Once the Trump administration finalizes the Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient Vehicles rule, lawsuits are certain from California and the other states that follow its tougher tailpipe pollution rules.

In recognition of this reality, 17 automakers recently sent a letter to Trump saying that the rollback would cause "an extended period of litigation and instability" (Climatewire, June 7).

Dave Schwietert, a lobbyist for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, sought to reinforce this point in his testimony.

Schwietert said the proposal would lead to "prolonged litigation — adding uncertainty as well as additional costs to automakers and consumers."

Both Wehrum and King framed litigation as inevitable.

"In my experience, these rules tend to go to the courts regardless," King said.

"I can’t control whether anybody challenges a final rule that I issue. And frankly, virtually every final rule that I issue gets challenged by somebody," Wehrum said.

"If we can avoid litigation, that’s great. But it’s awfully hard to do in my business," he added.


After the hearing, Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) told reporters that the five hours of proceedings were "helpful."

"I thought it was a very helpful hearing. I think that people provided a lot of sound information, even on affordability," he said.

Tonko also noted top E&C Democrats are investigating the oil industry’s influence on the rollback (E&E Daily, June 20).

The investigation comes after a New York Times investigation found that Marathon Petroleum Corp., the nation’s largest refiner, engaged in a covert campaign to dial back the Obama-era car rules.

Tonko said he and his colleagues are probing "a lot of the perhaps inappropriate lobbying efforts to address the oil needs before the environmental needs of the economy. So we’re going to check into any of the suggested interference here in a way that may have been very manipulative and coerced."

On the other side of Capitol Hill, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) blasted Wheeler for seeking to shift the blame onto Nichols.

"When the administration said the negotiations were ending about a month or so ago, my response was: They never really started," Carper told E&E News. "The administration did not engage in a meaningful way. They blame Mary Nichols and said that she was unwilling to negotiate or be reasonable, and I just think that’s hogwash."

He added: "It’s not too late. They can come out and regain their senses and say, ‘You know, maybe the best thing for our economy is a 50-state deal that the auto companies are pleading for so we can stay out of court with California and other states for the next five to six years.’"

EPA and NHTSA are ultimately seeking to finalize the rollback this summer.

In a brief scrum with reporters after his testimony, Wehrum said he expects the final rule to be sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget in a matter of weeks.

Reporter Jeremy Dillon contributed.