The Obama administration locked in tighter fuel economy standards today for cars, minivans, SUVs and pickup trucks — finalizing the decision 14 months ahead of schedule and a week before the inauguration of Donald Trump.
A component of President Obama’s climate change agenda, the greenhouse gas standards would bring average fleetwide fuel economy for new vehicles to 50.8 mpg in 2025.
Automakers who oppose the tightened standards have lobbied the president-elect to soften the standards, and his transition team has vowed to undertake a review.
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy defended the decision and the timing in a statement.
"I strongly believe that issuing this final determination at this time, in light of the robust technical record that supports it, is in the best interests of the auto industry … and public health and welfare," she said, adding that EPA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the California Air Resources Board committed to that standard in 2012.
EPA could have chosen to raise or ease standards set in 2012 for model year 2022-2025 vehicles as part of a midterm review, but the agency proposed last November to keep them unchanged (Climatewire, Dec. 1, 2016).
That decision surprised automakers because the final deadline had been April 2018 and the decision was expected to go to the next administration.
But EPA said today automakers are "well positioned to meet the standards at lower costs than previously estimated." It decided to maintain the standards to "provide regulatory certainty for the auto industry despite a technical record that suggests the standards could be made more stringent."
A technical report released last summer found automakers could meet or exceed the standards through 2025 with existing or developing technology, although it cautioned that consumer appetite for trucks and SUVs over passenger cars would slightly curb the average fleetwide fuel economy.
Automakers slammed the decision as "rushed" and "disappointing." They have argued the increasingly strict standards come at a great cost to their industry since consumers prefer less fuel-efficient trucks over small or electric vehicles.
"The Environmental Protection Agency has still failed to state a compelling reason for rushing its final determination," said John Bozzella, president and CEO of Global Automakers. "It unnecessarily truncated public comment and prevented scrutiny of an important policy decision that will affect consumers, investment, public health and the environment. This can only undermine confidence in the objectivity of policymaking. It merits a serious look by the incoming administration."
Environmentalists hailed EPA’s move.
"A new administration is no reason to shift progress to reverse," said Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club. "In order to keep our air clean and our climate safe, we need to put fuel efficiency standards in the fast lane. Fortunately, together with the Clean Power Plan, the Obama administration’s clean car standards are the most ambitious step the United States has ever taken to reduce carbon and other types of air pollution."
Because it is not a rulemaking, EPA’s allies said, the decision is not subject to the Congressional Review Act. A Trump administration bent on undoing the decision would have to present new evidence to overcome legal challenges from advocates, they said.
Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign, said automakers have met or exceeded the standards every year since they were tightened in 2012.
"Despite dire automaker warnings that the rules would be unachievable," he said, "the car companies are now complying — making huge profits and selling record numbers of vehicles for a second consecutive year, even as the standard has grown tighter."
The Trump administration and the Republican Congress have several options to tweak the rules.
NHTSA has yet to issue its rules for model years 2022-2025, and it must do so by 2018. It will weigh an automaker petition to smooth out differences between the NHTSA and EPA standards.
The ARB, which has its own authority to set vehicle standards and has harmonized them with the federal agencies, will consider its own midterm review of the standards in March.
Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman at the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said automakers want to "find a prudent compromise path forward that avoids an unnecessary and counterproductive regulatory collision."