WASHINGTON—Stakeholders and interested citizens officially have weighed in about the Trump administration's efforts to freeze vehicle fuel efficiency standards at the 2020 model year.
The auto industry and public interest groups must nervously wait while the National High Traffic Safety Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency cull through more than 100,000 written filings, plus testimony from three listening sessions, and then draft their final rule-making—expected sometime next year.
If the White House sticks to its plan, an onslaught of lawsuits from state attorneys general and environmental and consumer groups will follow to stop its implementation, ushering in more uncertainty for automakers that want to know the rules of the game for 2021-25 so they can make research, investment and operational plans that require long lead times.
Auto makers brought the uncertainty upon themselves by seeking some compliance relief from the Obama-era rules, but they might not have realized how much more disruptive the Trump administration's approach would turn out to be.
Auto makers have consistently said they want a single, national program that incorporates California's clean-car plan—followed by a dozen other states—as well as continued ratcheting up of the mpg targets, though they differ over how stringent annual improvements should be.
The California Air Resources Board is willing to negotiate with the federal government, but not under the threat of losing California's unique authority to set more stringent rules.
Here are some potential paths to compromise:
- A coalition of utilities and power companies has suggested that auto makers that voluntarily comply with some of California's high standards on a nationwide basis and demonstrate strong ongoing investment in electric vehicles be certified as California-compliant. In exchange for expanding the California's program reach, they could receive more zero-emission and off-cycle technology credits and other benefits.
- Regulators could give some ground on how auto makers need to achieve corporate average fuel economy targets before 2025 in exchange for a stronger commitment to go further after 2026.
- CARB Chair Mary Nichols told The Atlantic she's open to relaxing standards for traditional sedans, which are declining in popularity, if auto makers agree to tighten them for SUVs and other light trucks, where the impact of improvements can be more pronounced.
- Honda Motor Co., in its official comments, recommended no reduction in mileage targets through 2025; state and federal collaboration to agree on a national program; better incentives that promote electrification; and compliance flexibilities that take into account the challenge of transitioning to alternative technology powertrains.
"We think there's a sweet spot in there that gives something to everybody," one Honda official told me. "We think this is eminently resolvable—if there's a will to do it."
But environmentalists argue that there's only so much room for compromise, because of the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gases. Auto makers, they insist, have had a lot of time to prepare.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned last month that global warming is happening even quicker than predicted and requires humans to contain the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels instead of 2 degrees to minimize the damage to health, property and global ecosystems.
The problem is that carbon dioxide concentrations are very durable, lasting up to 100 years in the atmosphere.
Criteria pollutants, such as particulate matter and ozone, have outsize effects close to the source of pollution, but they don't stay in the atmosphere the same way, Patricia Koman, a former EPA scientist explained to me. By contrast, CO2 reductions anywhere in the world are important.
Tinkering around the edges won't cut it anymore.