EPA chief says stricter mileage standards hurt new car sales and safety

The Trump administration’s plan to scale back the higher mileage standards for new cars proposed under the Obama administration is safer and more environmentally friendly because the lower standards will encourage more new car sales, the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Monday.

“We want to encourage people to buy new cars,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said during a visit to a Superfund site in Chattanooga on Monday. “Older cars are worse for the environment and for public safety.”

EPA said the average car on American roads today is 12 years old, or 25% older than a generation ago, and Wheeler said the stricter mileage standards set by California and by the previous administration will boost car prices by an average of $2,300. Those higher prices encourage more people to stick with older, dirtier and less efficient automobiles, Wheeler said.

The EPA head defended his agency’s decision to challenge California and a dozen other states that are proposing stricter mileage standards for new cars, claiming America needs a consistent standard across the country to help auto makers and consumers.

“We have to have one national standard for automobiles,” he said. “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.”

EPA says California standards illegal

The Trump administration sent a warning letter last week to California officials, claiming that the state’s agreement with Volkswagen, Ford and two other auto makers over tailpipe pollution could violate federal Clean Air rules. EPA and the Department of Transportation contend that the California Air Resources Board (CARB) lacked authority to set its own fuel economy standards in conjunction with the car makers even though California has historically adopted stricter standards than the federal government to clean up its smog and air pollution.

“Congress has squarely vested the authority to set fuel economy standards for new motor vehicles, and nationwide standards for [greenhouse gas] vehicle emissions, with the federal government, not with California or any other state,” the letter from the Department of Transportation and the EPA chief counsels said.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom disputed EPA’s claims and compared the Trump administration’s tactics to those of a bully.

“The Trump Administration has been attempting and failing to bully car companies for months now,” he said in a statement last week. “We remain undeterred. California stands up to bullies and will keep fighting for stronger clean car protections that protect the health and safety of our children and families.”

Car makers pledge to boost mileage

In an unusual twist from the auto companies’ usual resistance to stricter regulations, Volkswagen of America, Ford Motor Company, Honda Motor Company Ltd., and BMW of North America agreed to go along with the the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and increase vehicle fuel economy of their fleets 3.7 percent year over year between model year 2022 and model year 2026. California is seeking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions linked with global warming by encouraging car companies to improve their fuel economy and to switch to battery-or electric-powered vehicles to reduce the biggest single source of carbon dioxide emissions.

The four companies collectively comprise nearly one-third of new vehicles in the United States. California is the largest passenger vehicle market in the country, with sales expected to reach close to 2 million new cars and trucks this year.

Volkswagen goes electric

To achieve the higher mileage requirements, Volkswagen this year launched an ambitious $91 billion program to mass produce electric vehicles and phase out the development of new gas-powered models within the next decade. VW is building an $800 million electric vehicle assembly line in Chattanooga that will add 1,000 jobs and on Monday the world’s biggest car company unveiled its first affordable long-range electric car, the ID.3, at the 2019 Frankfurt Motor Show in Germany.

The California agreement would put car companies on course to average 51 miles per gallon across all their sales by 2026 and 12 other states plus the District of Columbia have pledged to go along with California’s mileage standards.

California’s mileage standard is weaker than what was proposed by EPA under President Obama. Meeting that target just by increasing fuel economy would have required car companies to average 54.5 miles per gallon across sales of cars, trucks, SUVs, and crossovers by 2025.

In 2018, the Trump administration froze the fuel efficiency standards for cars and light-duty trucks, following the EPA’s finding that tailpipe emissions standards negotiated by the Obama administration for motor vehicles built between 2022 and 2025 were set “too high.” That kept the average fuel economy at just 37 miles per gallon.

“We’re not doing anything to take away California’s ability to set their own standards for health-based emissions — for pollution from NOx (nitrogen oxide) or SO2 (sulfur dioxide) which contribute to smog,” Wheeler told the Chattanooga Times Free Press. “What we take issue with is their ability to do something on C02 (carbon dioxide emissions) and energy efficiency, which is not a public health issue in the state of California.”

Carbon emissions from a single U.S. state “is minuscule” in terms of worldwide emissions, Wheeler said.

“While they focus on C02, they still have a lot of non-attainment areas in California and we wish they would focus more on the health-based standards,” he said.

Despite EPA claims that stricter mileage standards will boost prices and cut sales of new vehicles, the four auto companies agreed to go along with California’s higher fuel efficiency standards for all of their U.S. car sales. Wheeler said those companies are simply trying to avoid the uncertainty and difficulty of meeting different standards in different states.

“I think it’s important for the consumers and the car manufacturers to have one national standard and that is what we are proposing,” Wheeler said.

Battling over mileage standards

In 2007, Congress adopted legislation that directs the Transportation Department to set a standard of at least 35 miles per gallon by 2020, and the “maximum feasible average fuel economy” after that. That same year, the Supreme Court ruled that the Clean Air Act authorized the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, which scientists say contributes to global warming.

But Trump’s EPA said the Obama rules developed for mileage were too ambitious and couldn’t be met.

On Aug. 31, President Trump tweeted that the changes in gas mileage “would lower the average price of a car to consumers by more than $3,000, while at the same time making the cars substantially safer. Engines would run smoother. Very little impact on the environment!”

He called the leaders of the car companies pledging to support the stricter California mileage requirements “Foolish executives!”

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