EPA Doubted Fuel-Economy Freeze Would Save Lives as Claimed

(Bloomberg) -- The Trump administration’s environmental protection and transportation safety agencies sparred for months over a plan to ease vehicle efficiency and emissions standards, debating whether it would actually save lives and money.

The joint proposal from the Environmental Protection Agency and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, unveiled earlier this month, calls for overhauling fuel efficiency requirements put in place while President Barack Obama was in office.

In announcing the proposal it calls the “Safer and Affordable Fuel Efficient Vehicles Rule,” the Trump administration estimated that the changes would save roughly 1,000 lives a year because less stringent regulations would drive down the cost of cars, allowing more people could buy new, safer models.

Internal documents released Tuesday showed EPA officials repeatedly questioned assumptions in NHTSA’s draft of the plan submitted for White House review in late May and disputed the supporting analyses as the two agencies negotiated the proposal.

The “proposed standards are detrimental to safety, rather than beneficial,” EPA staff wrote in a June 18 memo.

The EPA asserted that freezing fuel economy standards would lead to an increase in traffic fatalities and boost the overall fatality rate, citing its own analysis, conducted after the agency said it corrected “erroneous and otherwise problematic elements” in a Transportation Department model.

In a statement Tuesday, NHTSA said the joint proposal resulted from "deliberative discussions" between the agencies and all aspects of it are now available for public review and comment.

“As is typical for any joint rulemaking, the agencies provided feedback to each other as they developed their policy and analysis for the proposal,” NHTSA said.

The behind-the-scenes bickering is revealed in hundreds of pages of correspondence, analysis and drafts from an interagency review of the plan led by the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, filed in a government docket on Tuesday.

White House

During the White House review, EPA officials raised numerous concerns with the original draft developed by NHTSA. For instance, the EPA questioned an assertion the Obama administration standards “coincided with an increase in highway fatalities” in the initial draft. “What data supports the implication that the standards to date have led to fatality increases?” the EPA asked in feedback submitted on June 29.

EPA’s number-crunching also showed it would take nearly a third as long as NHTSA estimated for consumers to recoup higher vehicle costs under the Obama standards by spending less money on fuel.

In the comments, the EPA said NHTSA’s model over-estimated the number of older, less-safe cars that would remain on the road if drivers didn’t buy new cars due to higher prices caused by the Obama-era standards, effectively inflating projected traffic deaths.

In July, NHTSA fired back, countering that EPA’s corrections assumed the size of U.S. vehicle fleet and the number of miles driven would remain constant, rather than changing because of the fuel economy standards -- an outcome the agency said “would be much more reasonable to expect.”

Mileage Rollback

The ultimate proposal released by the agencies this month calls for suspending Obama-era planned increases in auto fuel economy requirements after 2020 so they remain at a fleet average of 37 miles per gallon. Without the change, the levels are scheduled to increase steadily to reach 47 mpg by 2025.

NHTSA says the changes will save roughly 1,000 lives per year that would otherwise be lost to traffic fatalities if the Obama rules remained. Most of the projected safety-related benefits are tied to assumptions Americans would drive less as they spend more on fuel and replace their existing cars with newer, safer models that are more affordable since they would not need costly efficiency technology.

The documents do not reveal how some disputes were resolved. Nor do they capture all of the interagency negotiations over the proposal -- especially discussions over phone calls and in meetings in the weeks before the measure was released.

“These emails are but a fraction of the robust dialogue that occurred during interagency deliberations for the proposed rule,” EPA spokesman John Konkus said in an email. “EPA is currently soliciting comments on eight different alternative standards and we look forward to reviewing any new data and information.”

The interagency disputes could further complicate Trump administration efforts to broker a compromise final rule that appeases automakers eager to avoid a protracted legal battle on the issue and California regulators, whose power to enact more stringent requirements is in jeopardy. If administration officials are not unified, adversaries across the negotiating table could seek to exploit those disagreements.

Senator Tom Carper, a Delaware Democrat, said the documents are evidence the administration’s plan “is based on bogus science and fundamentally flawed assumptions.”

“The administration’s own EPA itemized its technical concerns about the plan’s baseless claims, but DOT and the White House seems to have willfully ignored much of it and chose instead to release a deeply flawed proposed rule that almost certainly will be struck down in court,” Carper said in an emailed statement.

The documents released Tuesday show that the EPA and NHTSA also disagreed about how aggressive to make the measure.

The EPA fought -- unsuccessfully -- to soften the government’s proposal to ease vehicle emission standards, the new documents show. The EPA sought to keep some flexible compliance options that make it easier for automakers to satisfy the requirements, such as by averaging fuel economy across their entire fleet or rewarding innovative features that make cars more efficient.

The EPA also took issue with a drafted argument that the “changes in prices, fuel economy, and other attributes expected to result” from the proposed rule would probably drive more new vehicle sales.

Andrew Wheeler, EPA’s acting administrator, reiterated the administration’s view of the benefits of the plan in an interview with Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. commentator and Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump adviser.

“We believe by freezing those for five years we’ll save over a thousand lives a year and save the American consumer over $500 billion over the course of the regulation,” Wheeler said. “We really anticipate more new cars will be sold because the prices will be slightly lower, and when new cars are sold they’re safer and cleaner for the environment.”

Irene Gutierrez, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the documents released Tuesday show "that even the EPA had deep reservations about the bogus safety arguments being pushed by the Department of Transportation. We know that automakers can make cars both more fuel efficient and safer; it’s heartening to find out EPA’s technical experts agree.”

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