President Trump directs EPA to shelve vehicle fuel economy goals

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WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump directed the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday to shelve aggressive vehicle fuel economy targets that have been a foundation for battles against climate change and harmful pollution in California and across the country.

The move attacks one of the Obama administration’s signature achievements and dims the future of electric vehicles, which the mileage rules have pushed the auto industry toward.

The regulations to be reviewed — finalized in the waning days of Obama’s presidency — had set ambitious targets for vehicle mileage in an effort to encourage automakers to develop and market new technologies that reduce fuel consumption.

Trump said Wednesday that “common-sense changes” were needed.

“We are going to ensure that any regulations we have protect and defend your jobs,” Trump announced at a vehicle testing facility outside Detroit. “We’re going to be fair.”

The decision puts the White House on a path toward a direct and costly confrontation with California. State officials, pointing to California’s unique authority under the Clean Air Act, have made clear they will not waver from requiring passenger cars to average about 54 miles per gallon by 2025, up from an average of 36 miles per gallon today.

A Sonoma County clean air advocate and the area’s two congressmen criticized the president’s action.

Ann Hancock, executive director of the Santa Rosa-based Center for Climate Protection, a nonprofit focused on combating climate change, said she was not surprised by Trump’s announcement, noting he has advocated “everything that would march us in the wrong direction.”

Fuel efficiency standards are a “critically important” part of the effort to combat climate change, she said. “To think they might be rolled back is very sad, and it seems to me very wrongheaded.”

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, said the move would be bad for the auto business.

“You don’t encourage innovation by moving backwards,” he said in an email. “As more countries push for stricter standards, the demand for American cars that can’t keep pace will drop — risking the very jobs the president says he wants to protect.”

Thompson also said he was troubled by the president’s suggestion that he might eliminate a waiver that allows California to set its own fuel efficiency standards.

“What we’re doing is working, and we should be able to keep moving forward,” he said, citing state efforts to promote zero-emission vehicles.

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said federal fuel efficiency standards are “one of the biggest things we’ve ever done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Instead of continuing the auto industry’s “innovation and leadership” on curbing emissions, “the climate deniers in Washington would take us back to the gas-guzzling SUVs dominating the streets,” he said.

Transportation is the largest source of California’s greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 37 percent, according to the state Air Resources Control Board.

Trump’s announcement comes amid a lobbying blitz from a coalition of the world’s largest vehicle makers, which complained in a letter to the new administration that the existing EPA rules place unreasonable and expensive demands on the industry. The appetite for next-generation vehicles has waned amid plunging gas prices, and automakers are increasingly turning to small SUVs to drive profits.

The automakers also charged the Obama administration with unfairly rushing the latest rules into place weeks before Trump was to take office, even though the deadline for finalizing them was not until 2018.

“The process was very short-circuited,” said a senior Trump administration official, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue. “There was a lot of data that was submitted, and I think it is fair to say the Obama EPA just ignored it.”

Former EPA officials and environmentalists strenuously dispute that charge. They say automakers have persistently complained over the years that environmental regulators were placing unreasonable burdens on them, only to find those rules ultimately motivated development of market-leading technologies that drove the resurgence of the industry in America.

The ultimate fate of the regulations may now be decided in a legal brawl between California and the Trump administration. The state is already moving to defend the federal regulations in court.

“Any weakening or delay of the national standards will result in increased harms to our natural resources, our economy, and our people,” reads a legal filing submitted Tuesday by the state.

Under the Clean Air Act, the state can impose emissions standards stronger than those set by the federal government, and a dozen other states have embraced the California rules. About 40 percent of the vehicles sold in America are subject to the rules California sets. Automakers have said repeatedly that it is untenable to manufacture separate fleets of vehicles to meet different standards.

This article includes information from the Los Angeles Times and Staff Writer Guy Kovner.

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