EPA Pulls Back Sound Policy Judgment at Behest of Auto Industry

, senior vehicles analyst | March 15, 2017, 11:50 am EDT
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Today, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt rescinded the determination that the EPA standards for 2022-2025 are appropriate.  This decision was made at the request of automakers seeking to supplant more than four years of robust, technical analysis with a political request from industry–a spokesperson for the administration even noted on a press call regarding the announcement that automaker complaints had been taken at face value with no additional analysis or verification, despite the tremendous body of evidence EPA has already put forth supporting the determination.  This decision could have major implications not just for our climate, but for consumers, thanks to an administration willing to bend over backwards for industry.

What does this mean?

This step backwards is the first necessary for the administration to weaken the fuel economy and global warming emissions standards set for 2022-2025 way back in 2012.  These standards were reaffirmed by the previous EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in January based on the breadth of data, which showed that manufacturers could continue to meet the standards on the books and that moving forward with the standards on the books would provide tremendous benefits to the American public.  While a stroke of a pen may be able to undo this determination, it cannot undo the significant body of evidence underpinning this well-justified determination.

It’s industry’s word versus a mountain of independent, peer-reviewed data

As I wrote in January, the determination that EPA’s 2022-2025 standards were appropriate was based upon a mountain of evidence.  The agency spent tens of millions of dollars on research and analysis, including vehicle testing and simulation that resulted in at least 20 peer-reviewed publications; studies on consumer acceptance of technology and willingness to pay for it which contradicts automaker assertions that the public doesn’t want fuel-efficient vehicles; and updated assessments of technology costs by an outside consultant that looked at how a given technology would impact the parts and engineering costs of other parts of the car, including some of the innovative technologies that weren’t originally anticipated back in 2012.

In addition to this massive amount of work accounted for by EPA, the Department of Transportation (DOT) added its own heap of analysis, including independent assessments of the costs to achieve the standards and the ability for future combustion engine and vehicle technologies to meet the 2025 standards as well as a DOT-funded comprehensive assessment by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine.  DOT’s findings were published jointly with EPA in the Draft Technical Assessment Report last summer and said quite clearly that manufacturers could meet the finalized 2025 standards through the deployment of conventional technologies and at a lower cost than originally anticipated.

A further part of the process, of course, came from publicly submitted analyses.  Groups like the International Council on Clean Transportation, the Environmental Defense Fund, and of course the Union of Concerned Scientists augmented the agencies’ research with independent analysis which generally showed that the agencies’ own estimates of technology improvements were consistently conservative.  In fact, automakers could exceed standards set out to 2025 through the deployment of improved conventional gasoline-powered vehicles.  Additional independent research showed how fuel economy standards disproportionately benefit lower income individuals, who tend to purchase cars on the secondary market and for whom fuel costs are a much larger share of income, underscoring the critical importance of these standards in protecting these families from fuel price volatility while saving them up to 2 percent of their annual income since fuel economy standards first went into effect.  Consumer groups as well have pointed to the positive impacts these standards have on all Americans, with thousands of dollars in net savings over the lifetimes of these vehicles that begin the moment the typical new car buyer drives off the lot putting much needed income back in the hands of consumers.

Industry continues to cry ‘wolf’

Standing in opposition to this large body of evidence is the voice of industry, claiming absurd assertions about jobs and cherry-picking data because even studies they paid for don’t support their ridiculous claims.  A recent automaker-funded study even noted that in spite of their own conservative assumptions, these rules are, in fact, job creators.  Of course, this industry fighting progress is nothing new—automakers have tried stunts like this previously. Automakers have claimed amongst other things that reducing tailpipe pollution under the Clean Air Act “could prevent continued production of automobiles” and “do irreparable damage to the American economy;” they have also fought safety features like seat belts and air bags for decades while waging what the Supreme Court called “the regulatory equivalent of war” claiming among other things that such features would lead to decreases in sales.

[Spoiler alert: None of that happened, and now you can breathe a lot easier and have a much safer automobile because regulators didn’t kowtow to industry demands.]

On top of this, they are also claiming that the EPA “rushed to judgment” in its determination, forgetting apparently the four-plus years of analysis and the numerous detailed, daylong technical meetings held by the EPA both with individual automakers and their trade associations, in addition to pages upon pages of industry-submitted analysis which the EPA carefully considered and to which the agency responded to before finalizing its determination.  Contrary to their claims, the automakers aren’t upset about the process—they’re upset about the outcome.  And now they’re looking to bend the ear of an Administration generally opposed to regulation to, once again, fight regulations that result in tremendous public good.

By itself this signature does little, but it portends bad intentions

Rescinding the final determination at the request of the auto industry flies in the face of good, technically sound policymaking; however, it is not in and of itself a binding change in policy.  At least for now, the 2022-2025 standards limiting global warming emissions from passenger vehicles remain on the books.  Unfortunately, this action signals a strong likelihood that this administration will not follow the evidence but will simply cave to industry demands—after all, it took less than a month for Scott Pruitt to overrule a decision built on four-plus years of data just because the auto industry asked.

Any change in these regulations will require a formal rulemaking process—and we at UCS will fight like hell to make sure any such rule continues to build upon the strong, technical foundation that led to the regulations on the books today.

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  • JRT256

    The problem with this blog is that it doesn’t really say anything.”

    Can you tell us what these technologies are that you allege can allow the auto makers to meet the 2022 mileage standards.

    • I linked to previous blogs and our comments where I’ve discussed the data in more detail.

      Here is some high-level analysis of some technologies:

      There is more of that type of discussion in the Automaker Rankings I put together a couple years ago:

      Our technical comments on the mid-term review are here:

      Here is a look at what suppliers are doing in this space:

      Here is an analysis from the National Research Council arm of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine:

      And the analyses from EPA supporting the Final Determination:
      Final – https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2017-01/documents/420r17001.pdf
      Response to Comments – https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2017-01/documents/420r17002.pdf
      Proposal – https://nepis.epa.gov/Exe/ZyPDF.cgi?Dockey=P100Q3DO.pdf
      Proposal TSD – https://nepis.epa.gov/Exe/ZyPDF.cgi?Dockey=P100Q3L4.pdf

      • JRT256

        I read the Two UoCS articles and I find no new technologies there. I did find the suggestion of lighter weight vehicles in the first one. This is also not exactly a new technology except that only Aluminum is being used on standard production vehicles (so-called super cars do use Carbon reinforced resin). AUDI has developed the technology to make Aluminium vehicles. The very high mileage A2 was Aluminium and currently the A8 is Aluminium.

        I note that you missed a point with the CVT. Current CVT designs require some power to operate the transmission (considerably more than needed to shift an planetary automatic) and this, obviously, has a negative effect on efficiency. This might be improved with further development, however, I see no way to eliminate the hydraulic pump and piston system from the dual cone pully and steel belt type of CVT. So, there will always be a tradeoff.

        The problem with reduced weight is the high cost which I believe is that auto makers’ complaint regarding the high cost of the standards.

        The NAS report is interesting. However, it contains no new technologies for engines other than possible ways to tweak the current use of these technologies. This is my point, which is that all of these “new” technologies are currently being used. Only some vehicles combine multiple technologies however some do. With existing technologies the only option appears to be combining more technologies on the same vehicle drive-line, tweaking excising technologies, and pushing compressed induction (turbocharging and supercharging) further.

        Tweaking is only going to provide small increases in mileage. Pushing compressed induction is going to be a high cost option. Some production engines have already appeared that have both a turbocharger powered by exhaust gas and a supercharger powered by the engine or electric motor. A possible development here is a turbocharger that would have an electric motor for additional power at low engine speeds with a possible cost less than the two seperate units.

        So, my conclusion is that these existing engine and drivetrain technology are not really anything new although they can be combined more and tweaked to achieve some moderate increases in mileage as reasonable costs. I have read of some new engine technologies which might appear but a true variabhle compression ratio engine (not controlled by the valves) is complicated (meaning expensive).

        I have also read about replacing the camshafts with electric/hydraulic systems. This is something that might increase engine efficiency by reducing parasitic losses and also allowing the engine computer more control over timing.

        What I think that this means is that the limits of drive-train and engine improvements will be reached and the only option will be to build lighter vehicles using Aluminium and advanced materials. This will be very expensive and what can price people out of the market.

        I also note another issue. This from the NAS report:

        “There exists a gap between the fuel economy experienced on-road and that evaluated in the mandated test cycles. Deviation of real-world fuel economy from EPA window sticker value, as well as from the CAFE compliance values, is expected to increase as some additional SI fuel economy technologies are applied to vehicles. When a vehicle is driven more aggressively, such as at higher speeds and higher acceleration rates than specified by the FTP75 and the Highway Fuel Economy Test (HWFET) drive cycles used for CAFE compliance, more fuel is consumed. If the vehicle has a conventional, naturally aspirated engine, the fuel consumption outside the CAFE drive cycles differ from on-cycle fuel consumption due to the gradual changes in BSFC values on the fuel consumption map of the engine and the increased power requirements at higher speeds or accelerations rates.”

        brings up a very important issue which has not been considered. If some of these technologies only increase the mileage on the test but have little effect during actual driving, this will not be cheating, but it means that the extra cost of a vehicle will be mostly wasted and a real world driver won’t actually save money. Perhaps some consideration should be given to this effect. Perhaps changes need to be made so that vehicles will show more actual efficiency, and, therefore, more savings in actual real world driving rather than “technologies” that simply allow a vehicle to use less fuel on the test which is not representative of actual driving.

      • See this blog for a clear picture for how little technology automakers have actually deployed:

        Also, technology does not need to be new to improve, as you noted. Take CVTs – they’ve been around for a long time, but part of the reason they are beginning to be more widely deployed is because the efficiency has improved significantly, even while separately creating less efficiency with simulated “step” changes for driveability/consumer acceptance. As modeling and vehicle testing has consistently shown throughout the lengthy review process, there is considerable improvement left in conventional vehicles through evolutionary improvements and increased deployment of efficiency technologies.

  • cutter1954

    You published a fact sheet in 2011 that the actual CAFE figures,for some arcane reason,didn’t translate to actual mpg stickers on new cars,that in fact 54.5 CAFE actually translated to ~ 39 mpg on the actual car stickers.Is this still correct?

    • Yes, that fact sheet remains true. The only major difference I would say is that because these standards are based on the mix and size of vehicles sold, the 2025 standard would correspond to an average of more like 51 mpg-equivalent, which translates to an average label value of about 36 mpg.

      The reasons for the discrepancy are that 1) the rule is still based on the old test procedures from the 1970s, while the label value is meant to capture as best possible real-world driving behavior; and 2) EPA regulates global warming emissions, which include air-conditioning improvement, so technically they set a grams CO2-equivalent-per-mile standard, which can be met through reductions in tailpipe emissions via improving fuel economy or by improvements to the air-conditioning system, including the use of refrigerants with lower global warming potential.

      • cutter1954

        This is so,so annoying.the average newspaper or blog reader sees 54.5 and thinks,wow,maybe these standards are a reach.I see it as big deal,since 36 or 39 mpg is nothing.My wife’s older 2013 Volt has 48k miles on it,with an actual mpg of 65.My 2011 Prius,according to these “CAFE” standards would be 71 mpg.

      • JRT256

        Looking at this scientifically, or at least as an engineer, it appears to me that we have a rather poorly thought out situation here. We have a test that is not representative of actual real wold driving. But, we are in effect teaching to this unrepresentative test to improve what we like to call vehicle efficiency. However, the test criteria is not really efficiency, but rather, the ability to get through this unrepresentative test using a small amount of fuel. Passing this test may have little effect on the mileage in real world driving where real improvements in efficiency are what is needed.

      • The test procedures for CAFE were written into law by Congress and can only be changed by Congress. While EPA has more flexibility under its authority under the Clean Air Act, because DOT’s program is forced to use those tests, EPA has aligned its test program for the sake of “harmonization”. However, there are additional procedures in place to recognize technology improvements that are not captured in those test cycles.