EPA does not set fuel-economy limits: get this right, journalists!

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Journalism as an industry is under great pressure these days.

There are far more people writing "content" than in past decades, and in general they are having to produce more of it for less money than they did 10, 20, or 50 years ago.

That's no excuse, however, for getting the basics wrong.

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We've seen many recent stories, both in automotive outlets and more general media, that reported on embattled EPA chief Scott Pruitt's determination that emission standards for 2022 through 2025 model-year vehicles are too tough.

Here's the problem: Far too much of the reporting indicates that the EPA is changing fuel-economy rules. That's simply wrong.

The EPA is legally responsible for setting limits on emissions from vehicles. A totally different agency, the Department of Transportation's NHTSA, is responsible for corporate average fuel economy rules.

Chrome exhaust pipe

Chrome exhaust pipe

The confusion comes because the EPA began to regulate vehicular emissions of the climate-change gas carbon dioxide in 2012, requiring the two agencies had to align those two sets of standards for the first time.

Previously, the EPA regulated "criteria emissions" (carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and hydrocarbons), which it could do without directly affecting the fuel consumption of the vehicles.

Following a legal battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court, the EPA was required to regulate CO2 emissions starting in 2012—and those emissions are directly proportional to the amount of fuel burned by the vehicle.

READ THIS: 8 things you should know about EPA plan to let cars emit more

That meant that the EPA and the NHTSA had to develop standards that "matched," so automakers weren't trying to meet fuel-economy rules that let them emit more CO2 than the EPA would allow.

In partnership with automakers and the powerful California Air Resources Board, the two agencies did exactly that in 2010 for 2012-2017 vehicles.

They repeated the process in 2012 for vehicles in model years 2018 through 2025, with a mandatory "midterm review" to look at the 2022-2025 standards before finalizing them.

Elaine Chao

Elaine Chao

The EPA issued a 1,200-page Technical Assessment report in July 2016 that found automakers had met the earlier standards more easily and at lower cost than predicted, and that few impediments existed to their meeting the later standards as well.

Just days before President Obama left office, EPA administrator Gina McCarthy signed those regulations to make them final.

Due to different regulatory schedules, the NHTSA had not yet issued final Corporate Average Fuel Economy rules for 2022-2025 cars at that time.

CHECK OUT: Pruitt's EPA emission rollback reasoning may well fail in court

The change in administrations effectively put that process on hold, and transportation secretary Elaine Chao has since indicated she intends to loosen the CAFE rules for those years.

McCarthy's successor at the EPA, embattled chief Scott Pruitt, issued the determination that the standards adopted barely more than a year ago were "not appropriate and should be revised."

That launches a process of rulemaking, likely to take a year or more, in which the agency must develop new rules, put them out for comment, take feedback into account, and finally adopt revised rules.

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt [photo from 2014]

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt [photo from 2014]

The 38-page rationale for tossing the rules now in force, however, is required to be based on scientific analyses.

Several experienced policy analysts and lawyers have suggested the Pruitt memo contains largely industry complaints and is largely devoid of the rigorous scientific analysis and modeling required to justify changes to the law.

That will likely lead to court challenges to the effort to ease the emission rules—possibly matched by efforts to challenge any easing of the corresponding CAFE rules once they are developed and released for comment.

Those efforts may be led by California, where Governor Jerry Brown, Attorney General Xavier Becerra, and CARB chief Mary Nichols have all indicated they have no intention of easing their own emission rules.

Meanwhile, if you see coverage that suggests Pruitt and the EPA plan to loosen fuel-economy rules ... that's just not true.

You have been warned.

 
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