Congress Investigates Rollback of the Clean Car Standards – an Epic Oversight Hearing

July 2, 2019 | 2:41 pm
Photo: nsub1/Flickr
Jonna Hamilton
Former Contributor

The House Energy and Commerce committee held its first oversight hearing on the soon-to-be-rolled-back fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards on Thursday, June 20.   The hearing highlighted how the rollback will be bad for consumers, the environment, health, and energy security – you can read more about the hearing set up in my colleague Dave’s curtain raiser blog, and Rep. Schakowsky does a nice job of setting up what’s really going on in her opening statement.

But the night before the hearing, Committee leaders called attention to the real beneficiaries of the rollback and officially launched an investigation into Big Oil’s covert campaign supporting the rollback, which was originally exposed in a blockbuster New York Times report late last year. The committee demanded answers on the coordination between the administration and  Marathon Petroleum, American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, American Legislative Exchange Council, Energy4US and Americans for Prosperity. Those answers are due on July 3 – we will see if these entities comply with the Committee’s request.

The hearing

While we await those answers, the hearing provides some fascinating background about the machinations behind this ridiculous rollback. Some quick numbers:

  • 10 – There were ten (10!) witnesses at this hearing. There were two testifiers from the Trump administration, Bill Wehrum, (now outgoing) Assistant Administrator of EPA, and Heidi King, Deputy Director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in the Department of Transportation.  Mary Nichols, the Chair of the California Air Resources Board (CARB), also testified on the second panel, along with witnesses from the United Auto Workers, Consumer Reports Advocacy, the Motor Equipment Manufacturers Association, Colorado Department of Transportation, the Heritage Foundation, the Alliance of Auto Manufacturers, the Louisiana Attorney General, and others.
  • 5 – Between opening statements, documents for the record, testimony, questioning, and drama, the hearing lasted more than five hours.
  • 17- About two weeks before the hearing, 17 of the world’s largest automakers, including Ford, General Motors and Toyota (many of whom are represented by the Alliance, who was a witness), sent letters to the Trump administration (also a witness) and California (also a witness), told the administration that their plan to rollback cleaner cars standards would reduce profits and create “untenable” instability in the auto manufacturing sector, promoting calls for parties to resume negotiations, which were summarily stopped by the Trump administration earlier this year.
  • 2 – As is typical, the hearing was split into 2 panels – the first panel was the administration officials and the second panel was everyone else. There was a little drama on this front though…..

The Wheeler letter

Mary Nichols, the Chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board (CARB), should have been sitting at the table with the administration witnesses, as California is (should be) an equal partner in setting the standards. However, the EPA was committed to undermining her at every turn.  Bill Wehrum refused to sit with her on the same panel.  While sparks were flying about this detail in the hearing room (with the Democrats arguing that Mary Nichols should have been on the first panel and Republicans arguing that she shouldn’t be sitting with administration witnesses), EPA Administrator Wheeler – who was not in the room – found a way to chime in.

David Shepardson tweeted out a letter from EPA Administrator Wheeler addressed (only!) to the minority (Republican) committee members. In the letter Administrator Wheeler basically called Mary Nichols a liar, said that her testimony was not truthful (!!), and accused her of “irresponsible testimony about conspiracy theories that ‘the oil industry drove this action’.” Again, this is the morning after the committee sent letters to oil industry members to disclose their involvement, based on evidence they had been communicating with the administration about this rule.  Having this letter drop as the hearing was starting made the hearing kick off rather strange, AND from all of the public statements we have seen, the content was absolutely inaccurate.  The (untrue) content of the letter was referenced multiple times during the hearing, both by Wehrum and by some Republican Committee Members.

What did the administration say?

The real fireworks of the hearing occurred while Wehrum and King were testifying.   They both made rather predictable (and untrue) statements about how the proposed rollback is actually good for people, said that everyone at both agencies are working together (even though there is ample evidence that EPA technical staff have been frozen out of the analysis), blamed California for stalled negotiations – it was the same stuff we have been hearing for over a year now.

But the back and forth with the Reps was still fun.  Here’s a sampling of some of the lines of questioning that the witnesses had to respond to (the number in parentheses is the district each Rep represents in their state) –

  • Schakowsky (D-IL-9) noted that the analysis that NHTSA relies on to say that mandating more efficient cars actually has dramatic negative safety consequences is untested and unproven – she asked Wehrum if EPA really signed off on it.
    • Bill Wehrum’s answer was that EPA had talked about it and they believed that the rule would save lives (refuted by the fact that EPA had to put their critique of NTHSA’s model in the official record during interagency review – an unusual move). He went on to simultaneously mansplain and brush off Rep. Schakowsky by saying that that the safety analysis was “very complex”.
    • Schakowsky’s answer to this was perfect – she noted that garbage in equals garbage out when modeling, demonstrating her understanding of complex issues.
  • Matsui (D-CA-6) talked about the importance of state authority and asked Bill Wehrum specifically about the administration’s intent to revoke California’s waiver to regulate tailpipe pollution – an authority the state has had since the enactment of the Clean Air Act, and an action that no administration has ever proposed.
    • Bill Wehrum refused to acknowledge that a waiver granted to California to regulate emissions has never been revoked, while in reality over 100 waivers have been granted to date and none have ever been revoked.
  • Dingell (D-MI-12) mostly wanted to get the Trump administration awe nd CARB back to the negotiating table and asked if EPA would restart negotiations if CA was willing to.
    • Wehrum said he would do what the President wanted him to do.
  • Blunt-Rochester (D-DE) asked why NHTSA wasn’t working on rules that would actually increase the safety of vehicles – like side restraint standards and side impact testing for car seats.
    • King said that rulemakings are complicated and they issue them when they’re ready (nevermind that NHTSA is many years overdue for several safety rules, as was noted by former Deputy Administrator David Friedman on the second panel).
  • Chairman Pallone (D-NJ-6) DeGette (D-CO-1) probed Bill Wehrum’s potential conflicts of interest as he is under investigation about his work with his former clients in the oil industry – they asked specifically about the rollback – he didn’t recall any meetings and didn’t know if any of his staff had meetings with these groups.*
    • Bill Wehrum refused to say he would definitely get the list of meetings to Rep. DeGette, instead saying that he would take the request back to EPA’s Office of Congressional Affairs.

*As an epilogue to this section – it’s worth noting that on Wednesday June 26, Bill Wehrum announced that he was stepping down from EPA – apparently because the ethics probes by both the EPA inspector General and the House Energy and Commerce Committees were having detrimental impacts on his former employer,  Hunton Andrews Kurth, a law firm where he represented power sector and energy and gas clients who were mostly fighting against regulations.

The main theme

One of the things that we heard over and over again was that most people don’t want the rollback of the standards, as the administration has proposed.  Representatives, both Democrat and Republican, the United Auto Workers, the Alliance of Auto manufacturers, the head of the Colorado Dept of Transportation – everyone wants the Trump administration to cease and desist with their relentless rollback of the popular and effective fuel economy and global warming pollution standards and go back to the negotiating table with CARB to find a solution that strengthens the standards.

Following the hearing, bipartisan letters were sent to the agencies and California, urging them to restart negotiations.  These letters were signed by Reps. Dingell and Tonko from the democratic side and Reps. Upton and Shimkus from the republican side.

While a negotiated outcome could be better than what we’re facing, particularly if it eliminates the administration’s attack on the Clean Air Act and state authority, the devil is in the details. As my colleague Dave has pointed out, the proposals that automakers put into the record are still a lot weaker than the existing standards—if that’s an indication of what a negotiated settlement looks like, that’s not much of a victory for the American public.

Moving forward, it will be critical that Congress continue to press the administration on its bad modeling and even worse proposals—strong oversight is needed to get the administration to uphold its Congressionally mandated responsibilities to protect public health and welfare and improve energy efficiency. The Energy and Commerce hearing is a good public display of the committee’s interest in this issue, and the letters that they sent to the oil companies and oil-funded front groups shows that they aren’t letting go of this issue any time soon.  We will continue to share our analysis and expertise in this issue and look forward to learning more about the committee’s work over time.  Ideally this level of interest stops the Trump administration from finalizing the rule as it was originally put forward in their proposal, and Congress will continue to play an important role in continuing to hold their feet to the fire.