Fueling the Opposition: EPA Staff Had Serious Reservations About CAFE Rollback Proposal

Staff at the Environmental Protection Agency had major disagreements over the decision to rollback corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards for the coming years, according to documents released last week. The matter echoes an event in May where science advisers for the EPA claimed the agency had ignored its own research in order to rationalize the push to relax fuel targets.

Both items have given ammunition to critics of the new proposal to claim the choice was politically motivated and based upon shoddy, biased research. Interesting, considering that’s exactly what the current administration said about the earlier decision to make them more stringent.

Led by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and backed by EPA, the current proposal seeks to keep fuel economy standards at 2020 levels — rather than continuing to elevate them. The arguments made for the move revolved around existing consumer preferences and saving lives. However, some of the agency’s staff seemed to be concerned with the NHTSA’s data and claimed it had overstepped by including the EPA in documents it didn’t approve of. 

In the most glaring example, a paper called the Preliminary Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA) was sent to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. EPA staffers wanted the agency’s name removed. “This Preliminary RIA is a work product of DOT and NHTSA, and was not authored by EPA,” wrote staffer William Charmley in an email. “[The] EPA’s name and logo should be removed from the DOT-NHTSA Preliminary Regulatory Impact Analysis document.”

A critical analysis of the proposal also saw the EPA correcting “erroneous and otherwise problematic elements of the model’s logic and algorithms.” However, the Department of Transportation suggested that the agency had been using outdated models and overestimating the future size of the automotive market and how much people would be driving. Ultimately, the DOT and NHTSA got their way and the EPA officially backed the proposal.

Currently in its public-comment period, the proposal is under new scrutiny with the general populace weighing in on the pros and cons. Environmental groups appear to be of one mind, however. The Sierra Club said the agencies “must pull their proposed rule back and focus on strengthening the standards — as the people and facts support — rather than continue with this charade.”

Meanwhile, David Hayes, who served as the Interior Department’s deputy secretary under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, claimed that internal conflict at the EPA could seriously help in California’s legal battle to keep its ability to set its own standards — something the new fueling proposal seeks to undo. “The EPA documents challenging the Administration’s alleged safety rationale for rolling back fuel economy and tailpipe emissions standards are devastating from a legal perspective,” he said. “If in fact there was internal warfare, that just provides further grist for litigators.”

Our cursory take, after going over a load of incredibly dry office emails, is that the EPA had serious doubts about the proposal. It also seems to be politically motivated to some degree. But so did the Obama administration’s rush to lock-in the more stringent standards before the changing of the guard. What matters most is if you believe the NHTSA’s claim that keeping the stricter fuel standards would be detrimental to the financial wellbeing of the nation, counter to consumer interest, and potentially risk lives.

a version of this post first appeared on thetruthaboutcars.com

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