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EPA Chief Scott Pruitt signals war with California over CAFE mileage standards

Trump’s embattled EPA head Scott Pruitt has come down on the side of polluters on just about every issue that faces the US, so it is with little surprise that in a recent interview he signaled that he may try to fight back against California’s fuel economy requirements.

The California Air Resources Board has been in talks with the EPA for some time trying to decide if the Obama administration’s CAFE requirements for 2022-2025 model year cars, which were decided on in 2009, should stick. The Obama administration revisited these CAFE standards just before he left office and decided that the requirements should continue to be implemented as planned.

Current federal requirements are that vehicle manufacturers’ average fuel economy should reach 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. This number is measured by the more lenient CAFE standard, whereas your window sticker uses the EPA standard – currently, the average new car gets around 24mpg by EPA standards, but around 37mpg by CAFE standards.  So we’re looking at about a 10mpg increase in the average, to around 35mpg, by the EPA standard.

But as is the case with many things, Mr. Trump’s administration is quick to second guess Obama-era policies. Immediately after the 2016 election, automakers like FCA, Ford and somehow even GM (which purports to want to move swiftly to an all-electric future) started lobbying to relax CAFE standards so that they can sell more gas guzzling SUVs and pickup trucks.

In contrast, CARB voted unanimously last year to continue implementing the agreed-upon emissions standards, which set them up for this very fight.  California is also considering setting additional, stricter standards for 2030, which they would like the federal government to join them in.

Pruitt’s interview today makes it sound like he isn’t too interested in California’s input on 2030 emissions standards.  He stated that he doesn’t think California should be “the arbiter of the nation.”

CARB Chief Mary Nichols told Bloomberg there has been “nothing new” in California’s position in response to Pruitt’s interview.

The reason California matters in this fight is that for decades, as a provision of the federal Clean Air Act, California has had a waiver from the EPA allowing them to set their own emissions standards, which tend to be stronger than the EPA’s national standards.  In addition there are several other states, known as “CARB states,” which automatically adopt California’s emissions standards.

Given that California has the largest economy in the US (it would be 6th in the world if it were its own country) and other states automatically follow California’s regulations, this gives California significant power in terms of negotiating national clean air standards.

If automakers want to sell a car in any of the CARB states, they need to meet California’s standards.  And since it’s more costly to meet multiple standards than to just design a car for the better standard and sell it everywhere, this effectively means that California’s standards are the ones that really matter.

The video clip above is indicative of the conversation but to get a better idea of what we’re dealing with, you should hear the whole conversation with Jennifer Dlouhy from Bloomberg News – full audio.

The EPA will issue a final decision about whether or not to maintain the Obama-era CAFE standards for 2022-2025 vehicles no later than April 1st.

Electrek’s take:

It really seems like the US federal government is standing alone here, once again.  Nationally, some 90% of Americans want to see higher mileage standards on cars.  This isn’t just a California thing – everyone in the country wants to pay less money for gas and to have cleaner air.

So in addition to second-guessing President Obama’s policies, the fossil-obsessed Pruitt, who has received over $270,000 in lifetime campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry, is also second-guessing the overwhelming will of the nation, once again taking the side of the polluters who have bankrolled his career over the side of the people and the environment.  So much for “Environmental Protection.”

Given that public opinion nationwide supports higher mileage standards, and specifically that the state of California and the CARB states stand for higher standards, it sounds like Pruitt has a low chance of winning this fight.  Automakers will continue to work to make more efficient cars in response to consumer demand, scientific inquiry into the status of our climate, and governments not just in the US but worldwide.  If he sets lower standards, it likely won’t affect much.  But this is no surprise, Pruitt is no stranger to fighting quixotic, poorly-thought-out battles.

The only thing his decision will do is surrender US leadership on environmental issues, and drive producers and inventors of green technologies to other countries where they may find a more amenable environment to do business, hurting US industry in the long-term.

Finally, in the interview Pruitt also repeated the tired argument that there’s no demand for electric vehicles.  Hopefully most readers of this site are already aware of the absurdity of this argument.  Not only are electric car sales increasing at a very rapid rate around the country and the globe, but back in 2016 half a million people put a significant amount of their hard-earned money down to preorder an electric car that they had never seen or driven and wouldn’t have any chance of getting for more than a year and a half, from an upstart manufacturer with little history who runs no advertising and yet nevertheless is displacing experienced manufacturers on their own home turf. The lack of demand is just palpable.

Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0


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Avatar for Jameson Dow Jameson Dow

Jameson has been driving electric vehicles since 2009, and has been writing about them and about clean energy for since 2016.

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