Rebuking the Rollback: Science Advisors Claim EPA Ignoring Its Own Fuel Economy Research

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

Several science advisers for the Environmental Protection Agency claim the agency has ignored its own research in order to rationalize the push to relax corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) targets.

A group within the Science Advisory Board has recommended reviewing the EPA’s justifications for the intended rollbacks, including the agency’s conclusion that Obama-era auto efficiency requirements must be changed because they are too stringent. It’s hoping to take the agency to task and force it to show evidence that upholds is proposal.

While EPA head Scott Pruitt sides with the President and automotive industry by indicating the current standards are too strict, very little scientific research has been cited to support the claim. In fact, the revision seems to hinge mainly on the belief that automakers might not be able to adhere to the standards approved by the Obama administration in its final days. “Obama’s EPA cut the midterm evaluation process short with politically charged expediency, made assumptions about the standards that didn’t comport with reality, and set the standards too high,” Pruitt said in April.

Other reasons given for the EPA’s desire to support the fuel efficiency rollback includes the United States’ preference for larger, less fuel-efficient vehicles, and a plethora of small cars that exist to lower corporate averages but don’t sell at a meaningful volume.

“We ought to endeavor as a country to set standards for lower emissions on cars that people actually want to buy,” Pruitt told Congress. “And what’s happened is we’ve created these arbitrary levels that has put a certain sector of cars in the marketplace that no one is purchasing, which means they stay on older vehicles and defeats the purpose of the rule.”

Despite those claims having at least some truth to them, very little of what the EPA has said on the matter included any references to environmental research. Much of the decision appears to be backed by economic assumptions and a soft spot for the automotive industry. Pruitt later suggested that one way of improving fuel efficiency would be to mandate higher octane gasoline, further raising eyebrows. Many critics claim he’s less concerned with scientific data and more preoccupied with offering aid to corporate interests.

This would all be fine if the organization he works for was called something other than the Environmental Protection Agency, or if there was an abundance of research on offer to help ratify these suggestions. And this is what the coalition from the Science Advisory Board wants to see. It’s requesting a full review of the decision to carefully reassess the existing fueling standards and, according to Bloomberg, a vote on the matter is expected to take place this Thursday.

The group singled out five major actions planned under the Trump administration, and is calling for a closer look into each one. Lack of evidence tops the list of reasons why. Despite the lightning-fast and potentially political-motivated passing of the final Obama-era determination, it was backed by more than a thousand pages of technical assessments and studies. However, the the working group from the Science Advisory Board claims the Trump administration’s decision to replace it was based on far less evidence.

After investigating, the group also said Trump’s EPA didn’t identify or account for the potential effect on greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, or public health and safety when it reopened the matter for review. “These would seem to be logical and necessary areas for scientific and technical assessment,” the group noted.

Additional discrepancies came up in the consistency of some of the research it does have. Last November, the Environmental Protection Agency said it would not classify glider trucks (semis built by pairing a new chassis with refurbished powertrains) as new motor vehicles. As such, they would not be subject to the Clean Air Act. It also cited a study from Tennessee Technological University that concluded pollution from glider trucks was equal to or less than that from modern trucks. The problem is that the study was funded by Fitzgerald Glider Kits and was later disavowed by the university.

That doesn’t necessarily make the EPA’s classification of new trucks with older engines incorrect, but it does call into question the trustworthiness of its data. The EPA already had its own research on glider trucks — which stemmed from lab tests estimating they produced anywhere from 4 to 40 times more nitrogen oxide and at least 50 times more particulate matter than competitors with modern engines. It’s discrepancies like that which has placed the Science Advisory Board on alert.

“This proposed rule is based on claims and assumptions about glider vehicle emissions, safety and cost that could be assessed via rigorous technical analysis, but it appears that EPA has not attempted to undertake relevant analyses,” the working group said in a statement. “Furthermore, there is little mention of effects on public health in the proposed rule.”

Depending on how the board decides to vote, numerous environmental proposals from the last year would come under enhanced scrutiny — including the fueling rollback. The group says it simply wants to ensure the EPA is using the best information possible and is not dependent on potentially biased data coming from industry-backed studies.

“If the [Science Advisory Board] takes this on and does their job fairly, it’s not a trivial event,” said Chet France, a former director of assessment and standards at the EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality.

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • Drzhivago138 Drzhivago138 on May 29, 2018

    Thank you, TTAC, for reminding me why I shouldn't come here so often.

  • Daniel J Daniel J on May 30, 2018

    This has got to be one of the most confusing articles by TTAC. What scientific, environmental research must be done to know that the Obama EPA standards would cost automakers tons of money in R&D or even sales? "very little of what the EPA has said on the matter included any references to environmental research. Much of the decision appears to be backed by economic assumptions and a soft spot for the automotive industry." Well duh. Rolling back the standards has nothing to do with the environment. "Lack of evidence tops the list of reasons why. Despite the lightning-fast and potentially political-motivated passing of the final Obama-era determination, it was backed by more than a thousand pages of technical assessments and studies...." Absolutely. But these studies were in relation to the envrironment. These studies had little economic motivation. Anything can be done with enough money (or loss). I sure don't trust an environmental study to answer an economic question, nor would I trust an economic study to represent that of an environmental issue. The only link here is the consumer. As a libertarian, let the consumer dictate what is "good" enough for the environment. Putting hamstrung vehicles on the market only keeps old ones out on the road longer.

  • Socrates77 They're pinching pennies for the investors like always, greed has turned GM into a joke of an old corporate American greed.
  • Analoggrotto looking at this takes me right back to the year when “CD-ROM” first entered public lexicon
  • Alan My comment just went into the cloud.I do believe its up to the workers and I also see some simplistic comments against unionisation. Most of these are driven by fear and insecurity, an atypical conservative trait.The US for a so called modern and wealthy country has poor industrial relation practices with little protection for the worker, so maybe unionisation will advance the US to a genuine modern nation that looks after its workers well being, standard of living, health and education.Determining pay is measured using skill level, training level and risk associated with the job. So, you can have a low skilled job with high risk and receive a good pay, or have a job with lots of training and the pay is so-so.Another issue is viability of a business. If you have a hot dog stall and want $5 a dog and people only want to pay $4 you will go broke. This is why imported vehicles are important so people can buy more affordable appliances to drive to and from work.Setting up a union is easier than setting up work conditions and pay.
  • El scotto I can get the speedometer from dad's 72 Ford truck back. I can't get dad back.
  • El scotto BAH! No dividers in the trunk for bags of onions or hooks for hanging sardines! Hard Pass.