WASHINGTON — The Trump administration's rejection on Monday of an Obama-era plan to make automobiles more fuel efficient opens up a long process to weaken current standards and puts California and the federal government on a collision course over vehicle emissions.
Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said in a statement that the standards on model-year 2022 to 2025 vehicles were not appropriate and should be revised.
The Obama administration set the average fleet-wide fuel efficiency standards "too high" and "made assumptions about the standards that didn't comport with reality," Pruitt said. He did not offer specifics on what they could be revised to.
The standards called for roughly doubling by 2025 the average fuel efficiency of new vehicles sold in the United States to about 50 miles (80 km) per gallon — however, that actually is equivalent to about 36 miles per gallon in real-world driving.
Proponents said those rules have spurred innovation in clean technologies and would continue to do so.
California has long been allowed by the EPA — under the so-called "California waiver" — to impose stricter standards than Washington does on vehicle emissions of some pollutants. And 12 other states, including New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, follow California's lead on cleaner cars, meaning that for practical purposes that's the standard automakers have to follow.
That has set up a battle on vehicle efficiency between California, the most populous U.S. state and a massive car market, and the administration of President Donald Trump.
Pruitt is a conservative and a big proponent of states' rights to regulate themselves — but opposes California's push for greener cars. So the California waiver is being re-examined, the EPA said.
"Cooperative federalism doesn't mean that one state can dictate standards for the rest of the country," said Pruitt. "EPA will set a national standard for greenhouse gas emissions that allows auto manufacturers to make cars that people both want and can afford — while still expanding environmental and safety benefits of newer cars. 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."
However, under the Obama-era rules, there actually was one national standard, as the Obama-era EPA aligned the federal standards specifically with California's. And automakers had agreed to that set of mileage goals, which were negotiated with the Obama administration in 2011 as part of a bailout deal. But under the new administration, they have urged Pruitt and Trump to ease the Obama standards so it becomes easier and less costly to meet targets.
California Governor Jerry Brown blasted the EPA's action. "This cynical and meretricious abuse of power will poison our air and jeopardize the health of all Americans," Brown said.
Mary Nichols, the head of the California Air Resources Board, said her state "will vigorously defend the existing clean vehicle standards."
Automakers also want to avoid a patchwork of rules that would add costs to engine manufacturing.
"The best way to achieve our collective goals is under a single national program that provides an aggressive but achievable pathway, a variety of compliance tools, and factors in the role of customers," said John Bozzella, president and chief executive officer of the Association of Global Automakers.
Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said Pruitt made the right decision and that the administration was working on a way to both increase fuel economy and "keep new vehicles affordable to more Americans."
Auto suppliers were cautiously optimistic about the creation of a national fuel efficiency plan. Steve Handschuh, head of the Motor and Equipment Manufacturers Association, said while his group supports adjustments and flexibilities, "we do not support significant changes to the standards."
Environmentalists decried Pruitt's decision, saying strict standards would slash emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Proponents of the corporate average fuel economy standards, or CAFE, say they have led to big gains in auto technology and that relaxing them could eventually hurt sales of U.S. cars in European and Asian countries that are moving toward mandates for electric cars.
It would "take America backward by jeopardizing successful safeguards that are working to clean our air, save drivers money at the pump, and drive technological innovation that creates jobs," said Luke Tonachel, a clean vehicles advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Reporting by By Sarah N. Lynch, Dan Levine, Timothy Gardner and David Shepardson