Showdown With California Looms As EPA Refuses To Extend Fuel-Economy Rules

President Donald Trump is traveling to California Tuesday for his first visit to the US's most populous state since taking office. But back in Washington, the administration has launched its latest salvo in its battle with the Sunshine State.

Per Bloomberg, the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday signaled that it won't dictate the future of ambitious automobile fuel economy regulations adopted during the Obama administration.

"California is not the arbiter of these issues," Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt told Bloomberg News in an interview. California regulates greenhouse gas emissions at the state level, "but that shouldn’t and can’t dictate to the rest of the country what these levels are going to be."

During a Tuesday morning interview with Bloomberg, EPA chief Scott Pruitt said the EPA likely wouldn't consider extending fuel economy standards beyond 2025. That statement is tantamount to a rejection of California's offer to ease its standards in an exchange for an extension.

Pruitt said the EPA is not "presently" looking at extending standards beyond 2025. California Air Resources Board Chairman Mary Nichols has signaled a willingness to discuss altering the state’s auto rules in the near term if the Trump administration agrees to develop efficiency targets further into the future.

Automakers aggressively lobbied Trump to take a new look at the standards, arguing they need to be reviewed in light of surging light-truck sales, low gasoline prices and tepid demand for plug-in vehicles.

Even so, the companies have repeatedly stressed in recent weeks that they hope the federal government and California will continue coordinating their tailpipe emissions policies. They’ve also invested billions of dollars in electric cars aimed not just at California but also overseas markets, especially China.

In making this decision, Pruitt reasons that setting overly stringent fuel-economy standards for automakers would be counterproductive because they could encourage people to keep older cars for longer.

"The whole purpose of CAFE standards is to make cars more efficient that people are actually buying," Pruitt said. "If you just come in and try to drive this to a point where the auto sector in Detroit just makes cars that people don’t want to purchase, then people are staying in older cars, and the emission levels are worse, which defeats the overall purpose of what we’re trying to achieve."

The agency has until the beginning of next month to determine whether broad-based fuel economy standards adopted under President Obama should be revised, or left alone.

This isn't the first time Pruitt has moved to roll back some EPA regulations. Already, President Donald Trump’s administration previously ripped up the EPA’s conclusion that no changes are needed. That conclusion was issued by the Obama White House in the waning days of his administration.

Pruitt

EPA Chief Scott Pruitt

The emissions rules were adopted seven years ago and are meant to be enforced by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the EPA and the California Air Resources Board. The standards were designed to get more restrictive each year through 2025. The requirements target a fleet average of more than 50 miles per gallon, equivalent to about 36 mpg in real-world driving.

"We want to hear from those folks in California and hear from the political leadership and try to make some informed decisions, but also say at the same time, we have a job to do," Pruitt said. "We’re going to do our job. And if there are steps being taken to impede that, we’ll have to address that."

Pruitt told Bloomberg that there are still open questions about whether climate change is caused by human activity. Pruitt also played down the EPA's role in a recent government study which determined that it's "extremely likely that human activity" is contributing to climate change.