EPA, NHTSA hearing schedule on CAFE draws protest

WASHINGTON — Federal and state regulators next week will host four listening sessions on a contentious proposal that would weaken federal fuel economy and emission standards.

But now the review itself is becoming a bone of contention, with critics accusing the Trump administration of trying to hasten the process toward a predetermined outcome.

The critique mirrors complaints by the auto industry in early 2017 that the EPA rushed through a midterm review to finalize stricter standards in the waning days of the Obama administration.

NHTSA and the EPA will jointly hold public sessions to hear from auto interests, environmental and consumer groups and other stakeholders about last month’s proposal, which would freeze fuel economy standards at 2020 model year targets and strip California’s independent authority to regulate carbon emissions.

Comment period

Hearings on the fuel economy rule changes will also cover the future of California’s special authority to regulate auto emissions.

A rule-making notice had mentioned Los Angeles, Detroit and Washington as locations. But now the hearings are scheduled for Sept. 24 in Fresno, Calif.; Sept. 25 in Dearborn, Mich., near Detroit; and Sept. 26 in Pittsburgh.

“I don’t have high hopes for the agency hearings, in part because of the way they set them up,” said Sean Donahue, a partner at Donahue, Goldberg & Weaver who represents the Environmental Defense Fund.

To have Fresno — a Central Valley city that’s far from California’s population centers — as the state’s sole hearing site is “deeply insulting to the millions of Californians that are affected by this.”

“And to not have a separate hearing about the waiver withdrawal is breathtaking,” Donahue said. “They’re trying to race everything through.”

Attorneys general from 18 states have asked NHTSA Deputy Administrator Heidi King and EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler to extend the written comment period from 60 to 120 days given the complexity and importance of the issue, and to similarly extend the comment period for the proposal’s environmental impact statement beyond the Sept. 24 deadline, saying the time frames are “wholly inadequate” and “arbitrary and unfair.”

The officials also requested an additional hearing in Sacramento devoted to the EPA proposal to revoke California’s Clean Air Act waiver, and reinstatement of Los Angeles and Washington as hearing sites. And they called for additional hearings in states that have adopted California’s vehicle emission standard.

The letter said the time extensions are necessary to adequately review thousands of pages of agency documents and technical data, especially because NHTSA has made numerous changes to the corporate average fuel economy model.

NHTSA and EPA officials didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, on Sept. 27, the California Air Resources Board will hold a hearing in Sacramento to consider amendments to its low-emission vehicle program.

The primary agenda item is a proposal to clarify that California is following federal emissions standards because the Obama administration program was very similar to California’s stringent rules. California officials say the agreement to accept federal standards as equivalent to their own applies only if the existing federal standards remain on the books, and have vowed to fight any proposed changes in court.

“Such an unfounded weakening removes a material predicate of California’s decision to accept compliance with U.S. EPA standards,” CARB said in its hearing notice.

CARB is also seeking comments on potential flexibilities that might allow for continued compliance with the federal standards, or reward national actions to promote cleaner vehicles.

If California can reach agreement with automakers on further flexibility in meeting the standards without weakening them, the result could be a de facto national program even without federal participation. Automakers would follow the California standard across the nation.

Trade associations representing automakers have urged California and the White House to reach a compromise that will enable continuation of the single national program.

On Aug. 29, officials from the White House, NHTSA, EPA and CARB met to discuss technical, legal and policy aspects of the fuel efficiency rule-making.

In a joint statement, they said they shared the goal of achieving one national set of standards for mileage and emissions.

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