Eight days before Donald Trump took office as president of the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency decided to establish stricter standards for car manufacturers with the intention of curbing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing average fuel economy. of their cars. Last week, the EPA officially changed its mind. The latest decision suggests that the current EPA is more concerned with relaxing regulations at all costs, regardless of what the experts say. It is also one that rules out the progress that the automotive industry is already making.
The agency, led by Scott Pruitt, now argues that its predecessors "hastened" its approval "only days before leaving office." He says the standards are too high, it will be difficult for automakers to reach them and it will cost consumers more. However, the current EPA provides little evidence to support these arguments and, instead, relies heavily on the discussion points of automotive lobbyists and old data.
Those things, not the latest data or expert advice, are the foundation upon which the Pruitt EPA is building as it moves to undermine the work of the previous administration. That makes it a potentially myopic effort. It creates more uncertainty for the automotive industry, a global business of around $ 2 billion. It also makes it much harder to tackle climate change, as it will be months before we know exactly how much the standards will change.
Meanwhile, American consumers are caught in the crossfire. Especially now that SUV sales are on the rise, the more flexible standards mean that more money can go out of the pockets of consumers and go directly to the gas pump, even if fuel prices stay low.
Barack Obama announces the new standards program in 2009, surrounded by executives of the automotive industry. Photo by Mark Wilson / Getty Images
The standards in question were announced in 2009 and launched in 2012. As the EPA set targets that extend a dozen years in the future, a mandatory "mid-term review" was written to ensure that automobile manufacturers were in good way . It was also an opportunity for the EPA to say definitively whether it got the correct standards first, especially the stricter ones that will apply to cars manufactured after 2021 (or 2022-2025 year models). It was assumed that the agency would use the midterm evaluation to take stock of all this and say whether those standards should be weakened, strengthened or left alone. It was supposed to be a point of no return.
Obama's EPA began the mid-term evaluation process in 2016 when it issued a 1,200-page "technical evaluation" written in conjunction with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) The EPA wrote in the document that automakers were already, on average, "overdoing" without hurting sales, so they decided that the targets were appropriate. For the 2025 model year, automakers would achieve an average emission level of 163 grams per mile of CO2 throughout the industry fleet, which equates to an average fuel economy of the fleet of 54.5 miles per gallon, almost double the current levels.
The agency completed the review process in January 2017 when it published a document called "final determination", which summarizes all the information gathered by the EPA, the public comments it has considered and other relevant information. Signed by former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, there are 33 dense pages that support the agency's decision with references to scientific studies, and relies heavily on the work of NHTSA, CARB and EPA in the technical evaluation report.
The original document of final determination is dense and heavy in science
Those high standards are needed to clean up the transportation sector, which recently approved the generation of electricity as the largest source of CO2 emissions in the US. UU., Argued the EPA. Keeping the rules in place could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 540 million metric tons and reduce oil consumption by 1.2 billion barrels, the agency said. Better yet, consumers would save $ 92 billion in fuel costs compared to the lifetime vehicles manufactured during these years.
Donald Trump spoke with automobile workers at the American Mobility Center in March 2017, the day the EPA announced it would reopen the mid-term evaluation. Photo by Bill Pugliano / Getty Images
In March 2017, with Trump as president and Pruitt as head of the EPA, the agency decided to reopen the mid-term evaluation process. On April 2 of this year, the agency published its own final determination document explaining the things it did not like about the decisions presented in the January 2017 document.
One thing that the current EPA asserts is that the previous administration unduly hastened the mid-term evaluation process. When he announced the decision to revise the standards, Pruitt said the previous administration had reduced the midterm review "with a politically charged convenience."
Janet McCabe, who led the EPA Air and Radiation Office under Obama and worked with McCarthy and the agency on the emissions program, says the January 2017 document was not arrogantly worded. She notes the release of the technical evaluation document in the summer of 2016 as evidence that the process began long before Trump was elected.
Current standards, which are now in danger, could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 540 million metric tons and reduce oil consumption by 1.2 billion barrels.
"What the rules said was [the midterm evaluation had to be completed] no later than April 1, 2018." He did not say "on April 1," he did not say before the April 1 & # 39; "says McCabe. "My experience with the EPA is that we always missed deadlines, right?" This was a situation where we felt we could provide this information on a schedule that gave people more time to work with them and plan the next steps. "
The previous EPA did more than enough work to support its decision, says Dave Cooke, senior vehicle analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "They actually looked at the evidence, compared it for and against specific positions, and then they weighed it and explained why they decided what they did," he says. "This [new final determination] completely lacks that."
The differences between the quality of the two documents are obvious, up to the format. While Pruitt's final determination document is five pages longer than McCarthy's, it also has a double space. McCarthy is not.
But it's the differences in content that Cooke finds troubling. On the one hand, it points out how the Pruitt EPA follows up on a claim that the current standards are "based on outdated information" with an argument based on the 2016 data provided by the lobbyists.
This information is used to support one of Pruitt's most salient arguments for the revision of the standards. The agency claims that people are buying very few electric vehicles, which are the most emission-free option, and backs this up with a graph that shows a decrease in total electric vehicle and EV sales as a percentage of total sales.
The data was compiled by Ward & # 39; s Automotive Reports, HybridCars.com and the Center for Automotive Research. But it was handed over to the EPA by the Global Automobile Manufacturers Association lobby group as part of the public comment process last year. (Two of the three tables in the EPA document were selected from public comments sent by automotive industry groups).
However, the table only shows data for 1999 at the beginning of 2016, which means that the EPA is basing its argument on sales data that is almost two years old. The most recent data (PDF) of those same groups show that the fall has changed. Sales of electric vehicles are increasing again.
On the left, the data used by the current EPA claiming EV sales are decreasing. On the right, more recent data showing that the trend has reversed. Images: EPA, Automotive Research Center
In addition, says McCabe, automakers only need fully electric vehicles to make up 2 percent of their fleets to meet the 2025 targets of the Obama administration, according to the findings of the previous EPA. EV sales trends, then, should not be as big as a sticking point as the industry and Pruitt are doing. The agency should not need to collect data here.
"This was a key finding backed by significant information that there are enough gasoline-based technologies [to meet the standards] – not just one or two, but a variety of them," says McCabe. There are Atkinson gasoline engines that offer better fuel economy by intelligently programming the opening and closing of an engine's intake valve or smooth 48-volt hybrid systems that give gasoline cars some of the benefits of a full hybrid. without an important redesign, and more. she says.
These technologies are being popularized by big automakers like Toyota, which uses Atkinson cycle engines in everything from the Prius hybrid to the Tacoma truck, and Volvo, which is adding the small 48-volt battery / motor system to All of their cars in 2019 were also considered in the work that went into McCarthy's final determination document, says McCabe.
"We have this amazing automotive industry that is innovating all over the place, and what our scientists and engineers found was that they could arrive without a large number of electric and hybrid cars in the market," he says.
Another argument that Pruitt's EPA has put forward in support of the revision of the standards is that the poorest consumers will end up paying the high emission levels and fuel saving targets. Cooke says the opposite is true. Low-income people do most of their car purchases in the secondary market, he says, something that the current EPA is ignoring in their work.
"When you stop citing and believe in evidence, you have carte blanche to do what you want."
Because used cars generally cost less than new cars, the amount spent on fuel over the life of the vehicle is more important to low-income buyers than the initial cost, says Cooke. Any increase in prices caused by the standards, which according to Obama's EPA could be around $ 875, which is nothing, would be absorbed by people with higher income levels, he says. But the resulting fuel savings also benefits those who buy used cars. (The Obama EPA also found in its final determination that buyers of new cars would ultimately save an average of $ 1,650 due to fuel savings, despite the higher initial cost).
The EPA declined to comment on these specific points. Instead, a spokesperson simply sent a statement that said in part: "The Administrator believes that the GHG emission standards MY 2022-2025 are not appropriate and should be revised.The EPA, in partnership with NHTSA, will further explore the degree appropriate and the form of the changes in the program through a process of regulation of comments and comments ".
For Cooke, the result of all this is a document that "is very, very little substantial, and lacks the kind of rigorous analysis of last year's final determination," he says. "When you stop citing and believe in evidence, you have carte blanche to do what you want, and that's what this document is."
McCabe agrees. "I do not think he mentioned health or climate change just once in the whole document, it's somewhat insulting in the way he emphasizes and flatters the industry's comments in a noncritical way, he just affirms them and then [says] & # 39; Ah, yes, UCS also made comments & # 39; "says. "This is not the way our administrative agencies should be doing their job."
Photo of Joe Raedle / Getty Images
Does the EPA's decision to change the standards mean that the cars we buy in 2020 will be dirtier and less efficient? Not right now. In fact, there may be reasons to believe that it will not change much.
The EPA will now work with the Department of Transportation to establish new proposed standards for 2022-2025 cars, which will likely be less stringent. These will be subject to public comment and are likely to be the source of a series of legal battles. Until then, the current standards, those elaborated by the Obama administration, remain valid.
The EPA has adopted a strong deregulatory approach under Pruitt's supervision, but several of its attempts to delay or delay regulations have been stopped by the courts, often due to poorly crafted decisions. Cooke says we could go the same way. The new proposal "will have to be much better justified than what they issued [in the final determination]," he says. "There is simply no flesh in those bones."
"There is simply no flesh in those bones."
But the real fight over standards could take place between the EPA and California, according to Maria Belenky, who has tracked several of EPA's actions as director of policy and research for the Climate Advisers workshop policy.
Because California was setting its own standards before the Clean Air Act was enacted in 1970, it was granted an exemption that the state still uses today to set high standards for emissions and fuel economy. Twelve other states currently follow California standards. If the current EPA sets a lower bar than the one applied by California and other states, the auto industry would be forced to manufacture cars that meet the highest standards or manufacture different cars for different markets. To avoid this, the agency said in its final determination document that it was considering revoking the exemption.
However, doing this would be difficult, says Belenky. "I do not see the legal route to repeal California's requirement to be anything but a delay for years and years," she says. "The EPA will face many setbacks from both civil society and California-side lawsuits, and it will take a long, long time to resolve."
If a long legal battle breaks out in this, Belenky says, automakers are likely to plan for the stricter standards of the Obama era in the meantime. "I can completely see a case in 2024 where we are what we are today, where California refused to back down in terms of its own requirements, manufacturers did not want to meet two standards, one in California, one in the rest from the United States: they continue to manufacture automobiles according to California standards, and there are demands on both sides, "he says. "Delay is actually probably our best friend in this kind of situation."
However, the longer it gets longer, the more uncertainty the industry will have to face, says McCabe. "One of the things that frustrates so many of us is hearing this manager say that it brings regulatory certainty, he says it over and over again, and in fact, he's doing exactly the opposite," she says. "The automakers signed and supported these rules as their roadmap until the year 2025, and he is the one that throws uncertainty about that."