WASHINGTON -- The EPA on Wednesday will hold its first and only public hearing on assessing Obama-era fuel economy standards for model years 2021-25, which are getting a second look at the behest of automakers.
The hearing, beginning at 9 a.m., is expected to include presentations by representatives of automakers; consumer, safety, and environmental groups; state regulators; health agencies; and other key stakeholders.
President Trump's controversial decision to reopen the midterm review process for the Corporate Average Fuel Economy program is seen by opponents as the first step in an effort to roll back rules aimed at doubling fleetwide fuel efficiency, and further lowering greenhouse gas emissions, by 2025.
Manufacturers support the aims of the program, but want more flexibility in terms of the targets and timeline to reflect the cost of fuel-saving technology and the market's shift toward trucks. If the targets are set too aggressively, they argue, consumers may not be willing to pay higher prices for vehicles with fuel-saving technology and lighter materials, which would encourage people to hold on to dirtier vehicles and limit the potential reductions in carbon emissions.
Consumer and environmental groups counter that fuel savings over the life of vehicles will easily outweigh upfront costs and any change to the efficiency standards will hurt drivers in their pocketbook. They're upset that the Trump administration reopened a review that the departing Obama administration concluded weeks before leaving office.
"Tomorrow's hearing is disappointing," said David Friedman, director of cars and product policy for Consumers Union and who in 2014 served as the acting administrator of NHTSA. "A lot of questions have been asked and answered. The EPA did an exhaustive analysis and determined automakers were going to be able to comply at an even lower cost than when the rules were put in place in 2011."
Consumers Union is the policy and action division of Consumer Reports.
Under a program jointly administered by the EPA, NHTSA and California regulators, automakers agreed with the Obama administration to increase fleetwide average fuel economy standards to 35.5 mpg by 2016 and to 54.5 mpg on cars and light-duty trucks by model year 2025. The midterm review is due by 2018 to assess whether economic and technology assumptions were still valid for the second phase of standards.
The agreement was designed to provide automakers a uniform set of fuel-economy and greenhouse-gas targets across the nation.
Obama officials sped up the review in hopes of setting the standards in place before the Trump administration took office, saying the data they collected supported the conclusion that the standards were appropriate. But some automakers complained that the review process was being short-circuited for political reasons and called for a more exhaustive review.
Trump has made deregulation a central theme of his term so far, and appointed a leading critic of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, to head the agency. But a full retreat by the administration on fuel-economy standards could set up a clash with California regulators, who have affirmed the standards, and could anger automakers, who have invested billions of dollars in strategies and technologies to improve fuel economy across their fleets.
"We want to increase public participation, listen to those impacted directly by our regulations and use the best available information and data to inform our regulatory actions," EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said in an Aug. 10 statement announcing a 45-day comment period to re-examine the standards.
The EPA estimated under Obama that it would cost the auto industry $33 billion to meet the 2025 standard, but that overall societal benefits would be three times greater.