EPA and NHTSA Officially Release Fuel Economy Plan, California Decidedly Pissed

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
epa and nhtsa officially release fuel economy plan california decidedly pissed

After months of discussion, circulating drafts, and arguing with the State of California, the Environmental Protection Agency and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration formally unveiled their plan to rewrite the existing corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) rules and replace them with something far less stringent.

The proposal would freeze the presiding standards in 2020 under the “Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule for Model Years 2021-2026 Passenger Cars and Light Trucks” plan, which is a mouthful.

It also moves to revoke California’s authority to set its own mandates, as predicted. The Golden State made it clear that it wants to maintain the Obama-era limits. However, the proposal includes a section emphasizing the importance of a single national standard, saying it would seek to withdraw the waiver granted to California in 2013.

“Attempting to solve climate change, even in part, through the Section 209 waiver provision is fundamentally different from that section’s original purpose of addressing smog-related air quality problems,” reads the proposal. “When California was merely trying to solve its air quality issues, there was a relatively-straightforward technology solution to the problems, implementation of which did not affect how consumers lived and drove.”

Basically, the EPA and NHTSA think California is overstepping its bounds, noting that the state “disproportionately focused on [greenhouse gas] emissions” over the last decade while ignoring other air quality issues, especially outside the automotive sector.

It also mentions that California’s own rules conflict directly and indirectly with the existing and proposed federal mandates, regardless of how strict they are. While that’s definitely true, the administration’s decision to lower the standards isn’t really going above and beyond in terms of environmental welfare, either.

That’s not to suggest the new proposal is entirely environmentally backwards. Corporate average fuel efficiency will still increase through 2020, leaving the government with the option of raising the limits later on. But how likely that might be is another matter — the bulk of the plan seems to revolve around consumer feasibility and what works for automakers.

It doesn’t try to make this a secret. The proposal explicitly states that the agencies’ analysis of CAFE and CO2 standards involves two basic elements: how manufacturers would respond to evolving emission mandates and what affect this would have on consumers. We already know U.S. drivers are opting for larger vehicles to a degree that completely stagnates the sales-weighted efficiency average. The government seems concerned that forcing more fuel efficient models risks the health of the automotive industry, adding that it would be physically dangerous to customers.

“A 2018 government study by NHTSA shows new model year vehicles are safer, resulting in fewer deaths and injuries when involved in accidents, as compared to older models. Therefore, the Administration is focused on correcting the current standards that restrict the American people from being able to afford newer vehicles with more advanced safety features, better fuel economy, and associated environmental benefits,” reads the proposal.

This is rather specious reasoning. While shifting toward extremely strict economy standards would likely involve downsizing vehicles to some degree, they wouldn’t suddenly become less safe than vehicles from decades prior. Larger vehicles will always outperform a smaller one in a collision, but advanced safety technologies won’t be abandoned overnight just to save weight.

The only real risk here is the added costs manufacturers will have to take on to ensure safety while also maximizing efficiency, which will affect their bottom line and trickle down to consumers. But the NHTSA sees this as a life-or-death situation. “If adopted, the proposed rule’s preferred alternative would save more than $500 billion in societal costs and reduce highway fatalities by 12,700 lives (over the lifetimes of vehicles through MY 2029),” the proposal claims.

“A 2018 government study by NHTSA shows new model year vehicles are safer, resulting in fewer deaths and injuries when involved in accidents, as compared to older models. Therefore, the Administration is focused on correcting the current standards that restrict the American people from being able to afford newer vehicles with more advanced safety features, better fuel economy, and associated environmental benefits.”

Honestly, we’re more concerned with the prospect of pint-sized engines than the safety aspect, and this reads like the government is more interested in helping automakers sell cars than anything else. It’s hard to know who to root for, as there’s so many things to consider. Automakers are worried about volume and profits, customers are worried about size and price, enthusiast are worried about performance and innovation, environmentalists are worried about pollution, and so on and so forth.

However, the EPA can’t enforce a national rollback if California and a handful of other states are playing by their own rules. Automakers would have trouble catering to a handful of states adhering to a different set of rules and their ability to do so would undermine the federal government’s authority on the matter. Revoking its waiver under the Clean Air Act had to happen, and a showdown is coming.

California Gov Jerry Brown promised his state would fight the new plan “in every conceivable way possible.” He’s already leading the charge in a lawsuit against the EPA. “For Trump to now destroy a law first enacted at the request of Ronald Reagan five decades ago is a betrayal and an assault on the health of Americans everywhere,” Brown of the Clean Air Act. “Under his reckless scheme, motorists will pay more at the pump, get worse gas mileage and breathe dirtier air.”

Obviously, the EPA and NHTSA have differing opinions on the matter, but both frame the proposal as a way to mitigate regulatory initiatives in a manner that wouldn’t negatively impact the economy without the wholesale abandonment of efficiency mandates.

“There are compelling reasons for a new rulemaking on fuel economy standards for 2021-2026,” said Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. “More realistic standards will promote a healthy economy by bringing newer, safer, cleaner and more fuel-efficient vehicles to U.S. roads and we look forward to receiving input from the public.”

“We are delivering on President Trump’s promise to the American public that his administration would address and fix the current fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions standards,” added EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler.

“Our proposal aims to strike the right regulatory balance based on the most recent information and create a 50-state solution that will enable more Americans to afford newer, safer vehicles that pollute less. More realistic standards can save lives while continuing to improve the environment. We value the public’s input as we engage in this process in an open, transparent manner.”

The Department of Transportation is seeking public comment on regulatory issues and has allowed for 60 days to provide feedback on this proposal. If you’d like to take a look at the document in full, it’s available here. Comments can be made through regulations.gov, using docket EPA-HQ-OAR-2018-0283.

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  • Megaphone Megaphone on Aug 04, 2018

    StingRay and Sub-600: Unless you are getting your history from some idiot like Denesh D'Souza I have no idea how you came to such an absurd conclusion. But there is no arguing with people who are so far to the right. Your minds are closed. I'm sure you think your opinion is a fact uniquely discovered by you and a few other people you think equally smart. Your opinion is not a mainstream one in legitimate political thought. And btw I used my history degree to get into a good law school and have had a very nice career. And of course I'm sending my daughter to an equally liberal and east coast college. Your ideas are part of the past.

  • Megaphone Megaphone on Aug 04, 2018

    You're right, pointless argument. Conservatives just drive me up the wall sometimes. I leave the conversation since we will never agree on this.

  • Keith Maybe my market's different. but 4.5k whack. Plus mods like his are just donations for the next owner. I'd consider driving it as a fun but practical yet disposable work/airport car if it was priced right. Some VAG's (yep, even Audis) are capable, long lasting reliable cars despite what the haters preach. I can't lie I've done the same as this guy: I had a decently clean 4 Runner V8 with about the same miles- I put it up for sale around the same price as the lower mile examples. I heard crickets chirp until I dropped the price. Folks just don't want NYC cab miles.
  • Max So GM will be making TESLAS in the future. YEA They really shouldn’t be taking cues from Elon musk. Tesla is just about to be over.
  • Malcolm It's not that commenters attack Tesla, musk has brought it on the company. The delivery of the first semi was half loaded in 70 degree weather hauling potato chips for frito lay. No company underutilizes their loads like this. Musk shouted at the world "look at us". Freightliners e-cascads has been delivering loads for 6-8 months before Tesla delivered one semi. What commenters are asking "What's the actual usable range when in say Leadville when its blowing snow and -20F outside with a full trailer?
  • Funky D I despise Google for a whole host of reasons. So why on earth would I willing spend a large amount of $ on a car that will force Google spyware on me.The only connectivity to the world I will put up with is through my phone, which at least gives me the option of turning it off or disconnecting it from the car should I choose to.No CarPlay, no sale.
  • William I think it's important to understand the factors that made GM as big as it once was and would like to be today. Let's roll back to 1965, or even before that. GM was the biggest of the Big Three. It's main competition was Ford and Chrysler, as well as it's own 5 brands competing with themselves. The import competition was all but non existent. Volkswagen was the most popular imported cars at the time. So GM had its successful 5 brands, and very little competition compared to today's market. GM was big, huge in fact. It was diversified into many other lines of business, from trains to information data processing (EDS). Again GM was huge. But being huge didn't make it better. There are many examples of GM not building the best cars they could, it's no surprise that they were building cars to maximize their profits, not to be the best built cars on the road, the closest brand to achieve that status was Cadillac. Anyone who owned a Cadillac knew it could have been a much higher level of quality than it was. It had a higher level of engineering and design features compared to it's competition. But as my Godfather used to say "how good is good?" Being as good as your competitors, isn't being as good as you could be. So, today GM does not hold 50% of the automotive market as it once did, and because of a multitude of reasons it never will again. No matter how much it improves it's quality, market value and dealer network, based on competition alone it can't have a 50% market share again. It has only 3 of its original 5 brands, and there are too many strong competitors taking pieces of the market share. So that says it's playing in a different game, therfore there's a whole new normal to use as a baseline than before. GM has to continue downsizing to fit into today's market. It can still be big, but in a different game and scale. The new normal will never be the same scale it once was as compared to the now "worlds" automotive industry. Just like how the US railroad industry had to reinvent its self to meet the changing transportation industry, and IBM has had to reinvent its self to play in the ever changing Information Technology industry it finds it's self in. IBM was once the industry leader, now it has to scale it's self down to remain in the industry it created. GM is in the same place that the railroads, IBM and other big companies like AT&T and Standard Oil have found themselves in. It seems like being the industry leader is always followed by having to reinvent it's self to just remain viable. It's part of the business cycle. GM, it's time you accept your fate, not dead, but not huge either.