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Environment & Science

California battles EPA over fuel economy




File: A customer pumps gasoline into his car at an Arco gas station on March 3, 2015 in Mill Valley.
File: A customer pumps gasoline into his car at an Arco gas station on March 3, 2015 in Mill Valley.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

California has been in the Trump administration's crosshairs this week. On Tuesday, the same day President Trump was in town saying Governor Jerry Brown was doing a terrible job — the head of the EPA was on TV challenging California's authority to set its own fuel economy standards.

"California is not the arbiter of these issues," EPA director Scott Pruitt told Bloomberg. "[It] can't dictate to the rest of the country what these levels are going to be."

Sue Carpenter joined Take Two's A Martinez to explain what's going on. 

FuelEconomy.gov

The fight over fuel standards

In a nutshell, it's about how many miles per gallon a vehicle gets. During the Obama administration, in 2012, the California Air Resources Board, together with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, agreed on coordinated fuel economy rules that made them more strict every year through 2025.

In seven years, the average fuel economy of a passenger vehicle in the U.S. is supposed to be 54.5 miles per gallon.

The car companies agreed to this and have been complying with that plan. California wants to keep those standards because cars with better fuel economy help the state meet its air quality and climate goals. But the EPA, under the Trump Administration, is now considering rolling back the stricter targets. 

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 19:  Scott Pruitt, administrator of U.S. EPA speaks at The 2017 Concordia Annual Summit at Grand Hyatt New York on September 19, 2017 in New York City.  (Photo by Riccardo Savi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 19: Scott Pruitt, administrator of U.S. EPA speaks at The 2017 Concordia Annual Summit at Grand Hyatt New York on September 19, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Riccardo Savi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit)
Riccardo Savi/Getty Images for Concordia Summit

Why fuel economy standards are so important right now

The EPA has until April 1 to decide whether or not it will maintain the 2022-2025 fuel economy standards. Only days before President Trump took office in early 2017, the Obama-era EPA conducted a review of the 2022 to 2025 fuel economy standards and ordered them to stay in place.

The Obama administration EPA did that, of course, because there were rumblings that after Trump took office, he would void the fuel economy standards. And lo and behold, shortly after Trump took office, he said ambitious fuel economy rules hurt U.S. auto makers. And he promised to work on the standards, which is what's coming to a head right now.

Trump is concerned about market forces

Pruitt said this week that if fuel economy standards are too aggressive, they're counter-productive. In his interview with Bloomberg on Tuesday, he said the purpose of fuel economy standards "is to make cars more efficient that people are actually buying." He's referring to the fact that the market right now is skewed toward gas guzzlers. 

The best-selling cars in the U.S. right now are all pickup trucks. Because of low gas prices and a healthy economy, people aren't buying fuel-efficient cars, so why force car companies to make them? That's the argument.

The 2018 Hyundai Ioniq hybrid gets an EPA fuel economy rating of 58 mpg.
The 2018 Hyundai Ioniq hybrid gets an EPA fuel economy rating of 58 mpg.
HyundaiUSA.com

Why fuel economy is important to California

The Los Angeles and Long Beach areas consistently have some of the worst air quality in the country. California as a whole has extremely ambitious goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It needs more people to drive fuel-efficient cars in order to meet those goals.

The 2018 Toyota Prius Prime Plug-in gets an EPA fuel economy rating of 58 mpg.
The 2018 Toyota Prius Prime Plug-in gets an EPA fuel economy rating of 58 mpg.
pressroom.toyota.com

Who gets to set fuel economy standards?

Ultimately, it's the federal government.

But right now, both the U.S. government and California set fuel economy standards. The reason California has been able to set more stringent fuel economy standards is because of the U.S. Clean Air Act, which has let California get a waiver from the U.S. government to set its own passenger vehicle emissions standards because it has such poor air quality and couldn't meet clean air standards without them. Since 1970, when the Clean Air Act was signed, California has gotten more than 100 waivers for vehicle emissions.

President Trump speaks to a group of autoworkers in Detroit on March 15, 2017.
President Trump speaks to a group of autoworkers in Detroit on March 15, 2017.
Getty Images

California wants fuel economy standards extended through 2030

The California Air Resources Board has said it would consider easing the current fuel economy standards if the Trump administration would agree to develop fuel efficiency targets further into the future — beyond 2025. California is already developing its own fuel economy standards out to 2030.

I n his television interview this week, Pruitt dismissed the possibility of setting standards further into the future. "Being predictive about what's going to be taking place out in 2030 is really hard," he said. "I think it creates problems when you do that too aggressively."

Car companies want continued federal and California cooperation

Even though the car companies have urged President Trump to relax the fuel economy standards, they want the EPA and California to continue coordinating their policies. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers told the Washington Post the industry wants a proper midterm review of the fuel economy standard that "lets the facts dictate the outcome."