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US EPA's Science Advisory Board tees up review of proposed auto standards freeze

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US EPA's Science Advisory Board tees up review of proposed auto standards freeze

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Science Advisory Board is poised to review a rule that would weaken Obama-era vehicle efficiency standards after the regulation is finalized later this summer.

Proposed in August 2018, the Trump administration's Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient Vehicles, or SAFE, rule would freeze fuel economy standards for cars and light-duty trucks at 2020 levels through 2026. Billed by the administration as a way to save money and lives, the proposal would effectively flatline federal fuel economy standards at 37 miles per gallon for six years instead of allowing them to ratchet up to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 under the tougher Obama-era standards.

As part of the rule, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the EPA, which together set fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards for vehicles, have also proposed to revoke California's federal waiver to set its own tougher standards.

With the EPA and NHTSA aiming to finalize the regulation in June, California and 12 other states are already locked in a messy legal battle with the agencies on multiple fronts, including a suit challenging former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's initial determination that the Obama-era standards were inappropriate.

The Science Advisory Board, or SAB a body of outside experts legally tasked with reviewing the science and technical information underpinning EPA regulations voted June 5 to review the final rule after debating whether the measure warranted further examination if the EPA and the California Air Resources Board, or CARB, fail to clinch a deal.

"I think the question would then be, 'What are the differences in what's being used in each of those rules that would then not be harmonized?' and then we'd like to look at the basis behind those," Alison Cullen, a public policy professor at the University of Washington, said during the board's annual meeting in Washington, D.C. Cullen also chairs the SAB's 10-member workgroup, which flagged the SAFE rule as worthy of review when assessing the EPA's spring regulatory agenda.

CARB Chairwoman Mary Nichols recently signaled the state will fight to defend its long-held waiver granted under the Clean Air Act to crack down on the transportation sector, which is now the nation's largest source of planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. "Trump's vehicle standards rollback with jeopardize our children's health! California + 12 other states are standing firm so our kids can breathe #cleanair," she tweeted May 22.

Cullen noted during the SAB meeting that the EPA is relying on the NHTSA's technical modeling to justify the proposal. That modeling shows the weaker standards would save drivers an average of roughly $2,300 on new vehicle purchases, thereby saving up to 1,000 lives annually by encouraging consumers to swap older vehicles for new, safer models.

However, those figures conflict with EPA career staff's own analysis, which showed the proposal would actually increase the number of vehicle fatalities by up to 17 deaths annually from 2036-2045 due to increased vehicle travel, according to documents released through the rulemaking process.

CARB and the state of New York are both suing the EPA in separate public records lawsuits for access to the underlying computer code used to develop the agency's alternative analysis. However, the EPA has contended the modeling is part of the deliberative process and therefore exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

Meanwhile, congressional Democrats are seeking more information from the agency regarding EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler's public claims that the proposal will save lives. And groups including the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council recently filed a request for correction with the EPA under the Information Quality Act. They argued that an April guidance memo issued by the White House Office of Management and Budget requires the public release of computer code used to perform specialized analyses.