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Few following the climate issue likely were shocked when EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced that he plans to essentially rollback the Obama administration’s more stringent climate-focused standards for motor vehicles.

Less than a month after Pruitt came into office in 2017, he announced he’d be looking at them, and his and President Trump’s dismissiveness of climate change science has been well known.

But, beyond the loud complaints from the environmental community and officials from affected states, there remains confusion about what Pruitt’s decision and other hinted-at actions may mean, given the lack of specifics.

One thing does appear certain, however: Along with the President’s efforts to pull the U.S. out of the 2015 Paris climate accord, the potential EPA rule-making ranks with the ongoing challenge to the Obama administration’s “clean power plan” regulations as the most significant Trump administration moves to scuttle federal efforts on climate change.

What exactly happened?

Pruitt said that EPA, on his watch, wants to ease the greenhouse gas (GHG) emission limits for cars and light trucks for the 2022 to 2025 model years. The Obama administration had completed those rules just before President Obama left office. Those standards initially had been put in place back in 2012 for the model years 2017 through 2025, with a mid-course review to begin in 2016 and be completed by April 1, 2018.

But the Obama EPA finalized that review – complete with some 1,300 pages of technical assessment that estimated an avoided 537 million metric tons of GHG from vehicles in those model years – just days before Trump took office in January 2017, more than a year before the deadline. No accidental timing.

“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.

An April 2018 EPA statement did two other things. It said the EPA process to set what it called “more appropriate” GHG emissions standards would be done jointly with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) so it could develop more appropriate Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. Those are the mileage standards, also for the 2022 to 2025 models.

And Pruitt’s EPA said it was “still” re-examining the California waiver – a provision of the 1970 Clean Air Act that allows California to set its own tailpipe emissions standards. Other states then can choose the federal standards or the California standards, and about a dozen states follow California’s. That gives extra oomph to the California standards and – in addition to providing air quality benefits – increases the size of the auto industry market affected even beyond California’s own large customer base.

Even though the two standards are just about identical at this point – Pruitt’s statement emphasized that: “Cooperative federalism doesn’t mean that one state can dictate standards for the rest of the country.” No subtlety involved there.

Understanding the critical history and context

The various auto standards have become interrelated over time – but they are not one standard. So, some essential context needed here.

The auto tailpipe emissions mandated in the Clean Air Act of 1970 addressed standard pollution – things like lead, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulfur, and particulates – the sorts of things that lead to creation of urban smog. California by then had begun putting regulations into place to reduce the blanketing smog regularly shrouding, in particular, the Los Angeles and Riverside basins, the basis for Congress’s decision to allow two standards.

The CAFE standards – the ones that set fuel efficiency/mileage – came into existence in 1975, and they were not then aimed at air pollution concerns. Instead, they were a response to the Arab oil embargo a few years earlier and were seen as a way to reduce demand for imported oil, in particular Middle Eastern oil. They were managed through NHTSA, an agency of the Department of Transportation.

The Obama administration linked the CAFE standards to the emissions regulation process that EPA handles. It took that action when GHG emissions were added as a separate tailpipe emissions regulation in 2009, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2007 that greenhouse gas emissions are pollutants. That ruling led to the Obama EPA’s “endangerment finding” that GHGs, including carbon dioxide, pose public health risks, which in turn, under the Clean Air Act, triggers regulation.

The Obama administration negotiations – involving representatives of the auto industry, California, and others – led to plans for two sets of standards, first for the 2011 to 2016 model years and then the 2017 to 2025 model years. The Obama administration had reasoned that CAFE standards and GHG emissions in particular have an impact on each other, therefore justifying that policies on both be coordinated.

California, ever since the ’70 Air Act passed, has gotten waivers for its various standards – more than 100 of them. The second Bush administration moved to reject the state’s waiver, but Obama took office shortly after that decision and reversed it. No California waiver, once issued, has ever been rescinded.

California has now combined all its auto emissions regulations into one waiver covering standard pollutants, greenhouse gases, and a zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) mandate to help control both. The federal standard does not include the ZEV mandate. Unlike with the emission standards, California cannot set separate CAFE mileage standards.

And that gets us to where we are now.

What is known … and what it could mean

There’s a whole bunch of things we don’t know, but a big one we do know: transportation now is the biggest source of GHG emissions nationwide, bigger than electricity.

“I don’t want to characterize it as a disaster, we’re already in a climate disaster,” said John DeCicco, director, University of Michigan Energy Survey. “What it does is it weakens and delays one of the most important areas where the country has made progress in limiting CO2 emissions.”

That’s without even knowing what new standards EPA under Pruitt might come up with.

And to be clear, the real targets of the Pruitt/EPA effort are GHG emissions … and California, which has resisted Trump administration initiatives on numerous fronts.

But the ripple effect would go well beyond the obvious one that additional GHG emissions would reduce prospects for restraining rising global temperatures that could in turn have an impact on standard pollutants.

“The car companies, the first thing that they’re going  to do is stop investing in advanced technologies,” said Margo Oge, who was the director of the EPA’s Transportation and Air Quality office from 1994 to 2012. She was a primary architect of the GHG standards Pruitt is targeting now. “I’m not worrying about a specific number, I’m not worrying about 2022 to 2025. What I’m worrying about is the overall market signal that this country is giving to the car companies for long-term investment.”

“If the Trump administration is successful in reducing the GHG standards in the U.S., then [because] all these companies are global companies, they will take it to Europe, they will take it to China, they will take it to other major markets and argue that as an industrial policy this country should not be stronger than the U.S.,” Oge said.

The ripple could also touch innovation for things like electric vehicle batteries that might help drive down their cost and increase EV use. In addition, the additional GHG emissions could make it even more difficult for states and other countries to meet GHG goals. And of course, there’s the adverse impacts on public health resulting from higher emissions over time.

“The more we delay – the more we’re going to have emissions now that will stick around for the long term,” said Paul Miller, deputy director of the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, NESCAUM. The group’s eight members, except New Hampshire, use the California standards.

There are also concerns about the impact a rejection of the California waiver could have internationally, given the state’s leadership in influencing air quality policies globally.

“If California’s right to set its own standards was in some way muted or completely revoked it would have enormous impacts on both air quality and climate change,” said Don Anair, deputy director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Oakland-based Clean Vehicle Program. “It’s hard to overstate California’s role and the [other states that use its standards] role in driving global emissions standards over the last 50 years,” Anair said.

It will all take time. What comes next?

To change the rules that are in place, EPA would have to formulate new rules and then go through a formal public comment period and lengthy rule-making procedure. Those steps take a long time … and then there would be the inevitable legal challenges from environmental interests and some states.

Butting heads is ‘new normal’ for Jerry Brown-led California and Trump/Pruitt-led administration and EPA.

Until there are new proposed rules, there’s nothing to challenge in the courts. In the meantime there are lots of questions to be answered. In California the big question is whether Pruitt is going after the specific waiver in place now, or instead after the broad authority California has under the law, as that authority applies to this and future waiver issues?

“We’re going to continue through 2025 because we’ve got a waiver which is a final regulatory action by the EPA, and we’re going to move forward on that,” said Stanley Young, communications director of the California Air Resources Board.

California has determined that in 2025 alone, with existing standards in place, its GHG emissions would be reduced by 13.7 million metric tons – a 12 percent decline from 2016 levels.

Across the country, Connecticut is one of the states using the California standards to help address air pollution problems, among the worst in the nation, with 70 percent of smog and 43 percent of GHG emissions coming from transportation, and much of the rest blowing in from midwestern and other states east and south of Connecticut. The state can’t meet the federal ozone standards or its own GHG emissions goals without the now-threatened auto standards, said Paul Farrell, assistant director for air planning at the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Farrell pointed out that if EPA were to flatline standards at 2021 levels, there would be some improvement as older and more polluting vehicles are moth-balled. “Is it good enough to get you where you need to be in 2050?” he asked. “No, but there still will be reductions.”

Looking ahead, perhaps the greatest uncertainty of all involves how much people will drive, and what they’ll drive. The steep drop in oil prices around 2014 rekindled car buyers’ desire for  larger and less fuel-efficient vehicles. The recently rising cost of oil means prices at the pump are expected to steadily climb during the coming summer travel season, when vehicle miles travelled (VMT) also climb.

That’s a correlation that needs to get worked into the equation more carefully, said Michigan’s DeCicco, who called fuel prices a “fickle friend” when it comes to protecting the environment.

“When the standards were put on the books the market signal, so to speak, of high gas prices and consumer interest in more efficient vehicles was well aligned with the long-term need to reduce CO2 emissions,” he said. “So now we’re in a situation where the fuel prices have moderated so that market signal is poorly aligned with the long-term need, and the long term-need has not gone away.”

And then there’s the certainty of legal challenges. California and the states that use the waiver have already sent joint letters to note their displeasure.

John Pendergrass, vice president, programs and publications at the Environmental Law Institute, in Washington, D.C., said he expects much of the legal burden will be on EPA.

“They’ll have to be able to show whatever research – not just their support for what they want to do – but they have to explain why the prior decisions are no longer valid,” he said. “Then they have to go through the process of doing that, take comments, etc. It could take a while.”

Throw into the timing mix the number of potential legal openings to fight back against EPA on these issues, said Patrick Parenteau, a professor in Vermont School of Law’s Institute for Energy and the Environment. “There’s nothing in statutes that suggests the administration has the power to rescind a waiver once granted,” he said

Still untested in the courts, Parenteau said, is the scope of California’s waiver. “We know it was created for smog and we know it was created for pollution. What’s not clear is whether California can take into account the added impact of climate change from carbon pollution.”

“Of course,” Parenteau said, “Congress couldn’t know in 1970 what we’d be experiencing in 2018.”

Jan Ellen Spiegel

Jan Ellen Spiegel is a long-time Connecticut-based journalist whose career has included radio, television, print, and digital reporting. She has won awards for her reporting on energy, environment, climate...