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Trump administration advances proposed auto standards freeze

The Trump administration is proceeding with a proposal to weaken Obama-era national vehicle standards in spite of a recent deal between California and four major automakers that will see the companies comply with that state's own tougher rules.

The administration's proposal — dubbed the Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient, or SAFE, Vehicles rule — was advanced Aug. 2 to the White House, kicking off a roughly 60-to-90-day interagency review process. Once that process is complete, a final version of the rule will be published in the Federal Register.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration unveiled the proposed SAFE Vehicles rule in August 2018 following former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's determination that the Obama-era standards were inappropriate. The proposal would freeze Obama-era Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards for cars and light-duty trucks at 37 miles per gallon for six years starting with the model year 2020 instead of allowing those standards to ratchet up to 54.5 mpg by 2025.

The proposed SAFE Vehicles rule also would revoke California's waiver under the Clean Air Act to set its own tougher rules for the transportation sector. The Edison Electric Institute, a trade group representing investor-owned electric utilities, submitted comments in October 2018 opposing the agencies' bid to revoke California's waiver while urging the EPA and NHTSA to finalize a new rule that includes robust incentives for electric vehicles.

California is leading a legal challenge to Pruitt's determination that the Obama-era standards are inappropriate, arguing that the decision is unsupported by the EPA's technical record. That state and others already have vowed to oppose in court the final SAFE Vehicles rule once it is issued, including any provision prohibiting California from adopting its own more stringent standards.

In addition, Ford Motor Co., Honda Motor Co. Ltd., Volkswagen AG and Bayerische Motoren Werke AG on July 25 announced an agreement with California regulators to follow the state's greenhouse gas emission standards for cars and light-duty trucks. The voluntary framework, which covers about 30% of the U.S. auto market, would result in a fleetwide CAFE standard of about 50 mpg by 2026.

Canada in June also reaffirmed that it would continue to follow California's tougher vehicle regulations to accelerate the widespread adoption of zero-emission vehicles such as electric cars.

Top EPA and NHTSA officials repeatedly have maintained that the SAFE Vehicles rule will save consumers money and avoid traffic fatalities a claim disputed by EPA career staff's own analysis of the proposal.

California and several states that follow its car rules also have filed a new lawsuit challenging a rule issued by the EPA and NHTSA in July that eases the fines automakers must pay when they violate CAFE standards.