(Bloomberg) -- The Trump administration announced that fuel-efficiency regulations for cars and light trucks are too stringent and must be revised, beginning a process sought by the U.S. auto industry to pare anti-pollution targets.
The EPA also said it was considering whether to revoke the waiver that allows California to set its own, tougher emissions rules.
The national greenhouse gas emission targets that were a signature element of former President Barack Obama’s climate-change policy are too aggressive, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt said in a statement Monday outlining the decision.
“The Obama EPA’s determination was wrong,” Pruitt said in a news release. “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.”
The widely anticipated decision drew criticism from consumer and environmental groups. It dovetails with other steps to unwind actions aimed at combating climate change, such as President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and the EPA’s repeal of a rule slashing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.
The response from environmentalists was swift and harsh.
“The American public overwhelmingly supports strong vehicle standards because they cut the cost of driving, reduce air pollution, and combat climate change,” said Luke Tonachel, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s clean vehicles program. “Backing off now is irresponsible and unwarranted.”
Pruitt’s so-called final determination released Monday is a step needed to dial back the Obama-era rules, which aimed to slash carbon dioxide emissions from cars and light trucks by boosting fuel economy to a fleet average of more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025. That standard is equivalent to roughly 36 mpg in real-world driving.
The EPA’s announcement echoed criticisms by automakers, saying the Obama administration short-circuited a review process and rushed out its final determination just days before leaving office. Pruitt said the agency would begin drafting fresh auto standards for 2022-2025 alongside the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said that vehicles need to remain affordable for consumers to replace older, less-efficient cars with newer ones.
“This was the right decision," Bergquist said in a statement. The Auto Alliance represents a dozen automakers including General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and Volkswagen AG.
"To ensure ongoing fuel economy improvement, the wisest course of action is to keep new vehicles affordable so more consumers can replace an older car with a new vehicle that uses much less fuel -- and offers more safety features," she said.
The decision also puts the Trump administration’s tenuous relationship with California officials on an even rockier path. The state has its own car and truck efficiency standards aligned with the Obama-era targets, made through an agreement reached in 2011 with the support of nearly all major automakers.
"The California waiver is still being reexamined by EPA under Administrator Pruitt’s leadership," the agency said. California has been writing its own clean-air rules since 1970, as part of the state’s bid to crack down on smog.
California officials vowed to resist a Trump-led rollback of the federal targets, with state Attorney General Xavier Becerra threatening a lawsuit and Air Resources Board Chairman Mary Nichols blasting the EPA’s move as a bid to "demolish the nation’s clean car program."
"California will not weaken its nationally accepted clean car standards, and automakers will continue to meet those higher standards, bringing better gas mileage and less pollution for everyone," Nichols said in an emailed statement. "This decision takes the U.S. auto industry backward, and we will vigorously defend the existing clean vehicle standards and fight to preserve one national clean vehicle program."
Conservative activists have been pressuring the Trump administration to repeal California’s waiver and put the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in charge.
"Automakers are now being forced to design vehicles not for what consumers want but for what regulators want," the American Energy Alliance, Heritage Action and 10 other free-market advocacy groups told Trump administration officials in a letter released Monday. "Who should decide what cars and trucks consumers should buy: consumers themselves or unelected bureaucrats in Sacramento?"
Without an agreement between Washington and Sacramento, easing the federal standards could lead to a messy legal battle, a patchwork of efficiency standards, or both. The friction has broader implications for carmakers because California’s rules are followed by 12 other states that collectively account for about a third of U.S. auto sales.
That has automakers nervous.
“Maintaining a single national program is critical to ensuring that cars remain affordable," said the Auto Alliance. "We look forward to working with key stakeholders and the state of California once EPA and NHTSA begin" crafting new regulations.
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