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Groups Sue U.S. Over Fuel Economy Rollback

Legal fight expected to reach the Supreme Court


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The Trump administration’s rollback of federal pollution and fuel economy standards is being challenged in a lawsuit backed by 23 states, four cities and a dozen environmental advocates.

The regulatory move softens rules set eight years ago during the Obama administration that would require carmakers to raise the average fuel economy of their vehicles by 5% per year between the 2021 and 2026 model years to an average 46.7 mpg.

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The new rules lower the annual gains to 1.5%. At the end of the day, the average fuel economy target for carmaker fleets is now 40.4 mpg instead of 46.7 mpg.

The Pros

The Environmental Protection Agency and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration say the eased standards will cut new-car costs, thereby encouraging more people to buy new vehicles that, because of their advanced safety features, will be involved in 1.8 million fewer crashes.

The agencies concede the weaker rules also will offset the lower purchase price of a car with about $1,000 in greater fuel costs over its lifetime. Along the way, cars that meet the standards will emit some 900 million metric tons of additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler insists the new rules “strike the right regulatory balance.” They also represent a compromise by the Trump administration, which originally proposed to simply freeze fuel economy and CO2 emissions at 2020 levels.

The Cons

But opponents argue that regulators justified their conclusions with a mix of shaky science, questionable logic and fanciful assumptions. The result, says California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols, has hobbled the “single most important air regulation of the past decade.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists fumes that the rationale for easing the original standards “defies science and common sense.”

The uproar stems from President Donald Trump’s assertion that his predecessor’s rules would burden carmakers with $100 billion in costly emission control technologies.

The EPA concluded shortly before the Obama era ended that the tougher rules were feasible and would deliver a net benefit to consumers and society. The agency, working with NHTSA, came to the opposite conclusion under the Trump administration.

What’s Next

The rollback was finalized in March. To no one’s surprise, it has teed up an inevitable legal fight that experts say will end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Where do carmakers stand? Their dream is a stable set of regulations to which they can engineer their future vehicles, regardless of the particulars.

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