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Trump's Plan To Roll Back Fuel Standards Could Face Hurdles


The Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA, is getting ready to throw out tough fuel efficiency standards for automobiles. The deadline for a decision passed this weekend. A public announcement could come as early as today. The standards were a key part of President Obama's efforts to address climate change. A move to weaken those standards could lead to yet another legal battle between the Trump administration and the state of California. For more, we are joined by NPR's Nathan Rott. He's at our studios at NPR West in Culver City, Calif.

Hey, Nate.


MARTIN: What can you tell us about the EPA's pending decision?

ROTT: Well, we've got a good idea of their intent, but we're still pretty light on the details. The EPA indicated more than a year ago that it was going to review these Obama-era fuel efficiency standards, which, by the way, aimed to boost the average fuel economy of cars and SUVs to more than 50 miles per gallon by the year 2025.

MARTIN: Right, they were aggressive.

ROTT: Yeah, incredibly aggressive. Scott Pruitt, the EPA's administrator, has described them as being onerous for car manufacturers and bad for consumers. And I think it's also important to note his background here, that Pruitt has questioned the underlying reason for these standards altogether - that being the widely held scientific consensus that greenhouse gas emissions, like those coming from your car's tailpipe, are driving climate change. So we've got a pretty good idea that they're going to reject the tough Obama-era standards, but we're not sure what they're going to replace them with or how low the new standards might be. And I should say it could be a while before we get those details.

MARTIN: How do car companies feel about this? I mean, presumably, they agreed to this rule back when it - when the Obama administration passed it in 2011. There were at least reluctantly on board. Now they're not so much.

ROTT: Yes. They did not. I mean, the politics have changed since then, obviously. And - but there's some other things going on here, too - the energy market, consumer habits are also different than I think people expected back in 2011. For one, gas prices have fallen. I don't know that I'd call it cheap out here in California right now, but it's certainly not the four-plus dollars a gallon that it was in 2011. And that's taken some pressure off of automakers because consumers don't feel like they need fuel-efficient vehicles. They want it, but they don't need it, right? So that's part of the reason that SUVs and trucks are still more popular than forecasters expected. Automakers have seen that, that people are hungry for, you know, bigger vehicles, not electric sedans. So they've been asking the current administration to lower these emission standards and make it easier for them to meet.

MARTIN: All right, so they are - they have been agitating for this.

ROTT: Yes, they have.

MARTIN: It's not that Pruitt has, like, spun up that they don't like this. They genuinely don't.

ROTT: No. They sent a letter to Pruitt requesting this.

MARTIN: All right, so how does California fit into this? Because the attorney general there has already said he's willing to sue the EPA over this rule. Is that going to happen?

ROTT: Well, I mean, the state has, I think, more than two dozen court battles already going with the administration. So I think it's safe to say that it's a possibility. But, you know, California has a lot of skin in this game, not only because it makes up a giant part of the country's auto market, but it also has the ability to set its own emissions standards, which 12 other states follow. And that's because the federal government has given California a waiver to set stricter air standards than are required under the Clean Air Act. Now, that's because the amount of emissions here and the state's longstanding problems with smog. The EPA and California have typically worked to find common ground here, setting fuel efficiency standards that everyone can agree on. Automakers prefer it that way. They don't want to sell one car in California and another in Wyoming. They want uniformity. But California leaders have said they won't move off of these stricter standards, so we could see a split or a fracture in the U.S. auto market.

MARTIN: All right, NPR's Nathan Rott for us this morning. Hey, Nate, thanks so much.

ROTT: Yeah, thank you, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF OVUM'S "DEFECTION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.