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Pa. to join 18 states’ vow to sue over Trump administration plan to roll back fuel-efficiency requirements

An aggressive rule set by the Obama administration in 2012 called for increasing fuel economy standards to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

Motorists crawl along Rt 42 northbound in Gloucester Township on May 13, 2018.
Motorists crawl along Rt 42 northbound in Gloucester Township on May 13, 2018.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Calling a new Trump administration proposal to roll back fuel efficiency standards "insane," Pennsylvania's Attorney General Josh Shapiro said the state would join 18 others, including California, to legally challenge the sweeping plan to scrap Obama-era rules that set increasingly higher standards.

"We strongly oppose the Trump administration plan to roll back these clean-car standards, and we're going to fight to do that," Shapiro said in a conference call with the attorneys general of California, Xavier Becerra, and Massachusetts, Maura Healey. "The data and science does not back up what they are trying to do, which is to eviscerate these California standards."

The attorneys general, as well as a wide range of environmental groups, lashed out at the proposal introduced Thursday by the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Their proposed rule calls for replacing an aggressive 2012 rule for increasing fuel efficiency in cars and light trucks from 2022 through 2025. That rule — hammered out with states, the EPA, and auto makers — called for increasing fuel economy standards to 54.5 miles per gallon for model years 2022 through 2025. (Because of the way mileage was calculated, the real-world impact would be much less.)

California, which has long had a waiver from the Clean Air Act to set its own standards, also signed off on the rule. California received the exemption — the only state to do so — decades ago because it was already developing its own standards when federal rules were being written. Some of the states poised to join the suit, including Pennsylvania, adhere to California's stricter standards. No suit would likely be filed, however, until at least after the 60-day public comment period on the rule proposal expires.

Now, the Trump administration is proposing to flatline fuel economy and tailpipe carbon dioxide emission standards from 2021 to 2026, locking models produced during those years to standards pegged to 2020. In addition, it wants to do away with California's exemption to set its own standards.

One of the administration's arguments against the 2012 rule is that the cheapest ways for automakers to achieve fuel efficiency already have been implemented. Requiring automakers to reach ever-increasing standards would now be too expensive, putting the cost of vehicles increasingly out of reach. It says keeping the Obama-era standards in place would increase the cost of an average vehicle by $2,340, prompting consumers to hold back in buying newer, safer vehicles and end up aging the nation's fleet of cars on the road.

In addition, officials from the EPA and DOT, in a joint teleconference, said older cars are less safe, potentially increasing the number of those killed on the road. They said the average cost of a new automobile is $35,000 and attributed part of that to increasing fuel standards.

But critics of the proposal note that the auto industry had a stretch of strong sales from 2010 to 2017, with several years seeing record sales, because consumers want more fuel-efficient vehicles. Sales did begin to tail off at the end of 2017. Securing America's Future Energy, a group dedicated to reducing dependence on oil, noted that vehicle prices have actually fallen 3 percent since 2013, even as the consumer price index increased 8 percent increased 8 percent.

Regardless, the Trump administration notes that much of the optimism of reaching higher fuel economy rested on an ever-increasing number of electric vehicle sales. However, it says electric vehicles count for about 1.5 percent of vehicle sales, far below the 30 percent that was anticipated over the next seven years.

Heidi King, deputy administrator of the NHTSA called the 2012 goals "unrealistic."

"We have already harvested the low-hanging fruit," King said of fuel-efficiency technology.

But Becerra, the California attorney general, said the EPA is rewriting its own detailed analysis from 2012 and that his state is set to exceed its goal of electric vehicles.  Most involved in the 2012 rules agreed the goals were achievable, he said.

Becerra said his state is already witnessing the impact of climate change, with 332,000 acres burned this year from wildfires, which usually don't begin to ramp up until August. The state needs to curtail carbon dioxide emissions with help from fuel efficiency, he said.

"The earth is not flat and climate change is real," Becerra said.

Becerra said he was already preparing to sue the Trump administration and would be joined by 18 other state attorneys general, including Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York.

"My job as the state's attorney general is to protect my state's rights and interests and the environmental rights of all Pennsylvanians," Shapiro said.

Healey, the attorney general for Massachusetts, said: "This absolutely has to be one of the most harmful and dumbest actions the EPA has taken.  This was a deal everyone agreed to years ago … the EPA has handed the decision-making process over to the fossil fuel industry."

David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment, was dismayed by the proposed rollback, asking, "How can we justify rolling back the most effective tool we have to take on global warming?"