Tomorrow is expected to be the day when President Donald Trump announces the EPA will reopen the comment period for the vehicle emissions standards it finalized in the waning days of the Obama Administration.
The event will likely be accompanied by predictable language: Trump will be “highlighting the need to eliminate burdensome regulations that needlessly hinder meaningful job growth," in the words of beleaguered White House press secretary Sean Spicer.
But assuming that's the substance of the announcement—and Trump doesn't, say, announce that all emission limits will be entirely abolished—what does this amount to?
First, it provides the new president a major media opportunity to appear with executives of automakers both U.S. and foreign, in this case at an autonomous vehicle testing facility outside Detroit.
General Motors CEO Mary Barra and Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne are confirmed to be attending the president's event.
Ford has been cagier about which executive it will send, although CEO Mark Fields said in January he would personally ask Trump to reopen the emission-rule process.
High-ranking executives from Daimler, Nissan, Toyota, and other carmakers will also be present at the press event, according to a report from the Reuters news service and other outlets.
"Automakers argue the vehicle emissions rules, which would raise the fleet average fuel efficiency to more than 50 miles per gallon (mpg) by 2025 from 27.5 mpg in 2010, will impose significant costs and are out of step with consumer preferences," Reuters summarizes.
"They argue they need more flexibility to meet the rules amid low gas prices."
Second, the president's framing of the issue as one of "burdensome" regulations that "needlessly hinder" the creation of jobs is hardly unexpected.
That's the same justification used by Fields and the industry lobbying group the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.
It is to be hoped that any actual data that may be used is more substantial than the widely discredited projection by the Center for Automotive Research of "up to 1 million jobs" that could be lost, which was cited by both Fields and the Alliance numerous times.
The White House, Washington, D.C. [Creative Commons license by dcjohn]
That hope may be in vain, of course, given the administration's tenuous history of providing factual backup or justifications for some of its actions to date.
Even under its new head, climate-science denier and fossil-fuel proponent Scott Pruitt, however, the EPA will have to abide by the rule of law and its internal procedures. Presumably.
That means that the simple act of reopening the comment period may not—necessarily—be the Armageddon painted in the press releases that have flooded forth from environmental groups.
It's undeniable that the EPA drastically shortened the comment period for the "Midterm Review" that was always part of the original 2012 agreement among regulators and automakers for emission limits for 2018 through 2025 vehicles.
That period was expected to run from the issuance of the EPA's Technical Assessment Report, which was released last July, through April 2018.
Instead, based on the copious evidence in the Report, the agency finalized the rules less than a month before Obama left office.
It will take a lengthy process, based on factual evidence, to overturn that report's conclusion that automakers have met the standards to date at lower cost and using less expensive electrification than projected, and will be able to do so through 2025.
The deeper worry, then, should not be the reopening of the comment period per se—but what changes Pruitt will make to the mission, goals, procedures, staffing, and budgets of the agency he now runs.
Because Pruitt sued the EPA more than a dozen times on behalf of Oklahoma's fossil-fuel extraction industry while he was that state's attorney general, he is widely thought to have a very good grasp of its operations and guidelines.
Changes to internal procedures at Federal agencies rarely make headlines, and most readers and viewers tune them out as boring.
But with the president and the head of the EPA denying the agency's own scientifically validated conclusions about human contributions to climate change, the real danger is not the reopening of the comment period.
The day Trump was inaugurated, in fact, the White House website eliminated all references to climate change.
Instead, a page describing the new president's "American First Energy Plan" includes the following words:
President Trump is committed to eliminating harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan.
Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt, 2014
In other words, it's what will happen inside the EPA as it eliminates programs to limit carbon emissions, rein in pollution from fossil-fuel producers, and generally work toward a more sustainable and less carbon-intensive future.
The big question will be whether—or more likely how—Pruitt goes after the EPA waivers that have allowed California to set its own, stricter emission standards since 2012.
That is likely to be the big fight, though it appears it will be only one of several likely to end up in the media and the courts over the next four years.
Note that the EPA's emission limits are often misreported as Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, which are issued by a different agency, the NHTSA.
Starting with the 2012 emission limits, however, and at the behest of the Supreme Court, the EPA added the climate-change gas carbon dioxide to the regulated substances emitted by vehicles.
Because carbon dioxide is directly proportional to gasoline consumed, the EPA's emission limits and the NHTSA's CAFE standards had to sync up—which they have done until now.
Chrome exhaust pipe
However, the NHTSA has not yet issued final CAFE rules for the 2022-25 period covered by the EPA's finalized rules, and it's not clear when it will do so.
That is likely to be its own battle.
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