U.S. EPA To Roll Back Emissions Standards – Setting Up Fight With California Air Resources Board

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The Environmental Protection Agency has announced that it will revise emissions targets and reconsider California’s Clean Air Act Waiver to set emissions in its state.

On Monday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made it official. The targets that the auto industry has been required to work towards for the better part of a decade will be revised, meaning lowered. This is a move that auto industry and political experts saw coming following the presidential election results in November of 2016.

Image Note: EPA Admin. Scott Pruitt far left. GM CEO Mary Barra 2nd from left. Mark Fields (formerly CEO of Ford) 3rd from right, FCA Chairman Sergio Marchionne 2nd From Right

The EPA’s 54.5 MPG on average industry-wide by 2025 has been a target many automakers and some vehicle enthusiasts have long seen as too aggressive. With a change in the political situation in America, that target will now be reconsidered. It was just 14 months ago that the prior administration’s EPA reaffirmed its commitment to the goal after an interim review. However, the new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, says that “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.” He made clear this new administration’s view, saying “The Obama administration’s determination was wrong.”

Unlike almost all other commerce in the United States, the state of California and its Air Resources Board (CARB), effectively set the MPG and emissions targets in the United States. Recognizing that California has a unique combination of geography and population density that creates low air quality, the federal government carved out a waiver for California in the Clean Air Act. This has had the practical result of allowing California to set the emissions not just for vehicles registered in its state, but in the entire U.S market. Mary Nichols, of the California Air Resources Board, made it clear that in her opinion, hers is the group who should steer the ship for her state and the states that follow California’s lead, saying the “EPA’s decision “changes nothing in California and the 12 other states with clean-car rules that reduce emissions and improve gas mileage — those rules remain in place.”

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In almost every aspect of the economy, the federal government sets the rules, and the states follow. This conflict between the new EPA administration and CARB is not based on a federal philosophy, but more about controlling the auto industry specifically, and how much, or how little emissions vehicles can emit. Having 37 states adopt a lower standard and 13 a more aggressive one makes it difficult and more expensive for automakers. “It is in America’s best interest to have a national standard, and we look forward to partnering with all states, including California, as we work to finalize that standard,” said EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

This is not the first time the new administration has had the opportunity to shape the auto industry with regard to emissions. When the Trump Administration re-wrote the tax code that was signed into law in December it was in strong disagreement with the democratic party’s legislative leaders over how that new tax code should be written. It devolved into a bitter partisan fight which had an interesting result. As Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn, put it simply, “They’ve (Republicans) written the bill in secret with no input from Democrats.” Most media organizations predicted that green vehicle tax code support would end and thus, kill the EV. Yet, the Trump-led Republicans who wrote the new tax code with no input from Democrats kept taxpayer subsidies for zero-emissions battery-electric cars in place and also kept in place subsidies for solar panels, which many green car owners see as directly related to green vehicles. Saying Republicans are doing everything in their power to kill green cars and ignore emissions is a hard case to make.

Most of the inexpensive and “easy” fuel efficiency tricks and technologies have been exploited by automakers. Things like direct injection, eight to ten-speed transmissions, and high compression engines are now ubiquitous. Automakers have even moved to make mainstream technologies that are squeezing the last drop of fuel out of vehicles like solar glass, stop-start, and the use of exotic materials like carbon fiber.

Although mainstream America may sound like it wants higher fuel efficiency, the buying public does not put its money where its mouth is. Inside EVs tracks the sales of electric vehicles and lists 43 different electric models available today from every major and most minor automakers. These do not include the dozens of hybrid models for sale. Yet, a recent study found that 97% of Americans opt not to drive a hybrid or electric vehicle. As surprising as this may be to those who live in the Golden State, about 93% of Californians opt not to drive a green vehicle. Among the top-ten vehicles sold in California, the only green car on the list is the Prius Hybrid at number nine.

Image sources:

Images including Scott Pruitt courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency

Fuel Economy Comparison courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy