Gas War: EPA Head Suggests Fuel Rollback May Have Some Wiggle Room

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
gas war epa head suggests fuel rollback may have some wiggle room

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler weighed in on the gas war this week, issuing some firm language on the matter during a visit to Chattanooga, Tennessee. His words were softer upon returning to Washington, where he reminded everyone that the EPA has made no formal decisions on the matter and suggested there could still be room for compromise.

Unfortunately, locating that happy middle ground has been a bit of a problem. Despite the fuel economy rollback’s status as a proposal, hard lines have been drawn in the sand between the Trump administration and California’s regulatory bodies. The Golden State’s compromise was to delay the Obama-era targets by one year. California also recruited municipalities, U.S. states, and automotive manufacturers to pledge their support of the plan, resulting in a handful of carmakers finding themselves on the business end of an antitrust probe.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s compromise has been nonexistent. Wheeler’s words suggest that might be because everyone is still making up their minds… but not before he gently razzed the West Coast for being shortsighted an singleminded.

“We have to have one national standard for automobiles,” he said during an EPA visit to a Superfund site in Chattanooga on Monday. “The standard we proposed last year will produce less expensive cars for the consumer and will save lives. We can’t have one state dictating what the standards are for the entire country, particularly when they are only looking at one policy and that is greenhouse gas emissions.”

Presently, that national standard aims to increase fuel economy to the equivalent of 54.5 mpg for cars and light-duty trucks by the 2025 model year. The proposed rollback suggests freezing those targets in 2020 but Californian leadership has refused to entertain the possibility. Before issuing its modest compromise earlier this year, the state was gathering support to maintain the old standards regardless of what the federal government decided.

According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Wheeler stipulated that the California Air Resources Board (CARB) lacked authority to set its own fuel economy standards in conjunction with automakers. While the state has been able to set its own standards in the past, roping in manufactures was a step over the line — hence the antitrust probe. He also claimed California was missing the bigger picture.

People are keeping cars longer than ever before and the current administration is fearful that more regulation will raise vehicle transaction prices to a point that will make them less palatable to consumers. There are also concerns that overzealous efficiency rules could result in people not being able to have the kind of vehicles they want to buy. While there’s little hard data to back that up in this country, we do know that American’s like bigger cars and sales-weighted mpg averages haven’t improved in years — even though economy standards have risen. Forcing a glut hyper-efficient autos onto the U.S. market could hurt the economy and maybe the environment by keeping more people in older models. At least, that’s the theory the EPA is operating under.

“We want to encourage people to buy new cars,” Wheeler said. “Older cars are worse for the environment and for public safety.”

Unfortunately, if you actually break things down, maintaining an older car typically works out to be better for Mother Earth than buying a new one — even if you’re purchasing an brand-new electric. Shopping your way out of an environmental problem is often far less effective than conservation. Of course, California’s plan also hinges on people buying newer vehicles with superior fuel economy so we’ll have to call this one a wash.

On Tuesday, Wheeler was back in Washington and announced the Trump administration is still evaluating aspects of its plan to ease the Obama-era fueling requirements. While that isn’t a guarantee that they will be more stringent than initially proposed, it would be almost impossible to imagine it going in the opposite direction.

Wheeler told reporters that he is still committed to easing the standards but added that it was “safe to say our final [version] will not look exactly like the way we proposed it.”

Bloomberg also reported that he claimed the administration hasn’t decided whether to separately advance a plan revoking California’s authority to set its own automotive efficiency requirements, stating “we are looking at that, it is certainly an option.”

Sadly, none of this gets us any closer toward deciding which side has taken the “correct” approach in saving the planet. But it’s nice to see the EPA’s leadership suggesting this might be a more complicated issue than it seems at first blush. Maybe if everyone starts thinking that way and begins talking constructively, this mess can finally be over.

[Image: Albert H. Teich/Shutterstock]

Join the conversation
2 of 49 comments
  • 28-Cars-Later 28-Cars-Later on Sep 12, 2019

    I can't believe that guy is serious with that suit. Did he just arrive here from the 80s?

  • Luke42 Luke42 on Sep 12, 2019

    "Sadly, none of this gets us any closer toward deciding which side has taken the “correct” approach in saving the planet. But it’s nice to see the EPA’s leadership suggesting this might be a more complicated issue than it seems at first blush." Bwahahaha. You think the Trump EPA is trying to save the environment? LOL No, they've rolled back every environmental protection they can, from the Endangered Species Act to the Clean Water act. The only reason they would do this is if they don't value environmental protection. Exactly why they're trying to undo decades of environmental progress is up for debate, I suppose. But the fact that they're moving in the direction of removing environmental protections is crystal clear from their public acts.

  • Jim Bonham Thanks.
  • Luke42 I just bought a 3-row Tesla Model Y.If Toyota made a similar vehicle, I would have bought that instead. I'm former Prius owner, and would have bought a Prius-like EV if it were available.Toyota hasn't tried to compete with the Model Y. GM made the Bolt EUV, and Ford made the Mach-E. Tesla beat them all fair and square, but Toyota didn't even try.[Shrug]
  • RHD Toyota is trying to hedge their bets, and have something for everyone. They also may be farther behind in developing electric vehicles than they care to admit. Japanese corporations sometimes come up with cutting-edge products, such as the Sony Walkman. Large corporations (and not just Japanese corporations) tend to be like GM, though - too many voices just don't get heard, to the long-term detriment of the entity.
  • Randy in rocklin The Japanese can be so smart and yet so dumb. I'm America-Japanese and they really can be dumb sometimes like their masking paranoia.
  • Bunkie The Flying Flea has a fascinating story and served, inadvertently, to broaden the understanding of aircraft design. The crash described in the article is only part of the tale.