On Tuesday, April 3, surrounded by representatives of the auto industry and conservative climate deniers, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt formally announced his decision to rewrite greenhouse gas emission standards for cars and light duty trucks, undercutting one of the Obama administration’s most effective climate programs.
From the last-minute, controversial venue change to the hypocritical messaging of its attendees, the announcement reflected the new normal in Trump's Washington: the placement of industry influence and climate science denial front and center.
Pruitt argued that the agency had, under the previous leadership, rushed to conclude a midterm evaluation of emissions standards that the automakers had agreed to in 2012. In reality, the Obama midterm evaluation was built upon a 1,217 page analysis performed by EPA staff, a rigorous scientific and economic review that found that car companies currently had the technology to achieve the targets for model years 2022-2025, and that the economic benefits to car buyers would outweigh increased costs of compliance.
U.S. EPA cast aside a 1,217-page staff analysis to cite automaker arguments in its official declaration to loosen fuel economy rules https://t.co/d7CkudVEsu— Camille von Kaenel (@cvonka) April 3, 2018
Contrast that with the 38-page document the EPA just released to justify re-opening rulemaking for emissions standards from 2022-2055, which relies heavily on arguments provided by the powerful Auto Alliance and other input from the auto industry.
We were wondering who matters most as @EPA re-opened the 2022–2025 CO2 standards, out of 290,000 comments received. Here's a wordcloud of the new admin’s notice on weakening the standards (April 2, 2018) pic.twitter.com/sf043CCB1M— The ICCT (@TheICCT) April 3, 2018
After shaking hands with Myron Ebell of the climate science-denying Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) and auto industry reps, Pruitt took the podium and told the auto industry what it wanted to hear — that the Obama-era standards would be revised and that automakers would continue to help write the rules.
After shaking hands with Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt talks to Mitch Bainwol of the Auto Alliance and John Bozella of the Global Automakers trade group. Credit: C-SPAN
Last Minute Change of Venue: From Climate Denier’s Chevy Dealership to Closed Door at EPA HQ
The event, however, was moved behind closed doors at the agency headquarters, and many members of the press were left shut out, leading many to assume that Pruitt didn’t want to deal with tough questions about his spate of ongoing ethics controversies.
It was likely a combination of factors that forced Pruitt’s retreat, including a number of other Chevrolet dealers who didn’t want the Chevy brand to be the backdrop for such an unpopular announcement. As Hiroko Tabuchi of the New York Times reported:
“Mr. Pruitt had been expected to publicly announce the effort on Tuesday at a Chevrolet dealership in suburban Virginia. But those plans were complicated by an angry pushback from some Chevy dealerships who were reluctant to see the brand associated with the announcement, according to two Chevy dealers who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing their relationship with General Motors. Late on Monday, the Virginia dealership, Pohanka Chevrolet in Chantilly, said the E.P.A. event it had planned to host had been canceled.
'They don’t want the E.P.A. to highlight Chevy,' said Adam Lee, chairman of Lee Auto Malls, which runs Nissan, Honda and Chrysler dealerships in Maine, and who said he was familiar with dealers’ thinking. 'They don’t want to be the bad guys.'
'Trump has been saying these standards are crushing the auto industry. But we’ve had record years for the past four or five years, in terms of sales and profit,' he said. 'It almost makes you think he doesn’t have the facts.'”
Even this venue change was clouded in controversy and uncertainty. Geoffrey Pohanka, owner of Pohanka Chevrolet, told CNN on Tuesday that the event had been canceled. However, the dealership referred reporters (including Desmog), to the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA), which provided this statement refuting both the New York Times and E&E reports and Pohanka’s own on-the-record quote to CNN:
“Unfortunately there were some inaccurate press reports on this last week and the situation has not improved with time. There was never a media event scheduled for the EPA to make its announcement on the MTR [midterm review] (as you know, EPA made its announcement today), so nothing has been canceled because there is nothing to cancel.”
Pohanka, who confirmed he was supposed to host Pruitt’s announcement, is also an outspoken climate denier. He maintains a website, isthereglobalcooling.com, where he writes that global warming is a natural, not man-made, phenomenon, and links to articles and papers that, he argues, cast doubt on mainstream climate science. (As of Wednesday morning, the site was down.)
In describing Pohanka in an E&E News article, reporters Camille von Kaenel and Maxine Joselow reference a video published in 2010 by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, in which Pohanka said, “It's true temperatures have been rising moderately … The one thing about the warming is it's not global.” The video has since been removed from its host site, though is still evident in Google search results.
Pohanka also sits on the board of NADA, the dealership trade group that lobbied hard against the Obama standard.
Auto Trade Groups Introduce and Applaud Pruitt
For the formal announcement, Pruitt was introduced by NADA’s President and CEO Peter Welch, who praised the administrator for “[spearheading] over two dozen significant regulatory reforms worth over one billion dollars in savings in his first year at EPA” and “issuing more deregulatory actions than any other federal agency under the Trump administration.”
The association has argued in recent comments to the EPA and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that compliance with the 54.5 miles per gallon (mpg) standard will cost consumers up to $3,000 more per vehicle by 2025.
However, NADA used the same estimates back in 2012 when the standards were first being negotiated, and the EPA’s research using the past five years of data found that the cost of compliance will be much lower. (What’s more, the International Council on Clean Transportation found that even the EPA’s estimates for compliance cost per vehicle by 2025 were “overstated by as much as 40 percent.”)
“If we lose affordability,” NADA head Welch said before introducing Pruitt, “then we lose sales, and if we lose sales we’ll keep people in older cars that are less safe and less fuel efficient.”
Welch also thanked Pruitt for “greenhouse gas standards that help us build upon the incredible progress that the automotive industry has made in fuel economy, and improvements in emission reductions, while ensuring that new motor vehicles remain in the economic reach of our customer base.”
He continued: “Auto dealers fully support continuous improvements in fuel economy, and we fully support fuel economy standards that encourage fleet turnover, because that’s really the name of the game, getting new and modern cars in the road.”
The concept of “fleet turnover” has surfaced again and again in comments by the auto industry and its trade groups. After Pruitt spoke, Mitch Bainwol of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (the Auto Alliance) brought it up again.
“It’s important to keep in mind that the vehicle moving from 10 to 20 mpgs saved 10 times as much fuel as does a vehicle going from 40 to 50 mpg,” said Bainwol. “Given that the average age of cars is nearly 12 years old, the best thing we can do for families and society is to turn over this fleet as quickly as possible. Smart regulation does that.”
Bainwol’s public comments, which were largely supportive of the need to continue to produce more efficient and lower-emitting vehicles, stood in stark contrast to the behind-the-scenes lobbying done by his organization. As Desmog reported earlier, the Auto Alliance submitted comments to the EPA and NHTSA that were highly skeptical of the scientific consensus on climate change, and argued against the necessity of lower emission vehicles.
Publicly, the automakers are projecting the image that they're innovating and investing in a future with more fuel efficient and electric vehicles. But as they wield newfound influence within this administration, the rules they are helping to write will set the industry back, emit more greenhouse gases, and cost American drivers more at the gas pump.
Main image: EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt re-opening auto emissions rulemaking. Credit: EPA, public domain