WASHINGTON—Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler defended Jan. 16 the Trump administration's proposal to scale back tailpipe emissions standards and held out hope for an agreement with California on a national program that would make compliance less costly for auto makers.
Wheeler told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which held a hearing on his nomination to be the permanent EPA chief, that he has met with California Air Resources Board Chairman Mary Nichols three times in his office and held numerous other conversations with her to try to align the federal and California emissions programs. Technical staff on both sides also have been in frequent contact.
"Nobody wants a 50-state deal more than I do," he said. "I haven't given up hope on that yet. But we're also looking at the calendar, and we know we need to finalize our proposal by March 30."
That's the date the rule needs to be completed by to go into effect for the 2021 model year.
The EPA and NHTSA proposal would freeze fleet fuel efficiency increases scheduled through 2025 at the 2020 level and rescind California's authority to set stricter emissions rules, which are followed by several other states. The proposed rule would effectively result in a 0.5 percent annual increase in the stringency of fuel standards, far slower than the current rules.
Ranking member Tom Carper, D-Del., told Wheeler more urgency is needed to fashion a compromise.
The senator said he met Jan. 14 with auto executives at the Detroit auto show who reiterated they want a more predictable regulatory environment on which to base investment decisions.
"They're building more energy-efficient cars. Their future is electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles. They need charging stations to be deployed. They need a tax credit extended for electric vehicles," he said. "They don't want to end up in a lawsuit with California and 13 other states for the next four or five years. They want some near-term flexibility on the tailpipe emission standards and then more rigor on the standards in the long term."
Wheeler defended the Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient Vehicles rule, repeating the agency's claim that it will reduce the cost of owning a new car by more than $2,300 and thus encourage people to purchase newer cars that are safer and cleaner than vehicles currently on the road, saving 1,000 lives per year.
Critics charge that the administration's analysis selectively picks data to bolster its political agenda and tries to have it both ways by asserting people will drive more with highly fuel-efficient cars and thus face greater likelihood of being involved in an accident, but will save money under the softer rule and thus be encouraged to buy fuel-efficient vehicles.
Wheeler praised the EPA's work in helping to secure a $490 million settlement against Fiat Chrysler Automobiles last week for cheating U.S. emission standards with diesel vehicles. It was difficult work for EPA engineers to prove the cheating, he testified.
"Defeat devices hidden in vehicle software can have more than 100 million lines of code," he said. "To give you an idea of what EPA staff had to deal with, an F-22 fighter jet has less than 2 million lines of code, and a Boeing 787 has around 14 million lines. So I am proud and grateful for our talented and dedicated career staff that was able to detect and expose these defeat devices."
No 'climate change'
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who is considering another presidential run, noted that Wheeler didn't use the term "climate change" in his prepared testimony and said the U.S. needs to move aggressively to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
Wheeler has strong support among Republicans and is expected to receive a favorable recommendation from the committee along party lines and be confirmed by the full Senate.