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Foes of US EPA's auto standards freeze seize on new White House guidance

A recently issued White House guidance memo could complicate the Trump administration's effort to weaken Obama-era vehicle efficiency standards for cars and light-duty trucks.

Opponents of the rollback on May 31 filed a "request for correction" with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They argued an April guidance memo from the Office of Management and Budget, or OMB, requires the release of computer modeling that could contradict the claim that the proposal will save money and lives.

A free-market conservative group has already used the guidance memo to launch a fresh challenge to the EPA's 2009 landmark finding that the buildup of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere endangers public health and welfare. But now environmental groups are seeking to use the memo to defend Obama-era vehicle efficiency standards flowing from the agency's endangerment finding.

Dubbed the Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient Vehicles, or SAFE, rule, the proposal would freeze fuel standards at 37 miles per gallon for model years 2020 through 2026 as well as revoke California's waiver to set its own tougher standards. Under the tougher Obama-era standards, fuel efficiency requirements for cars and light-duty trucks were set to ratchet up to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

The Trump administration has relied on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's modeling, known as the Corporate Average Fuel Economy model, to claim that freezing the standards will reduce the average cost of a new vehicle roughly $2,300. The NHTSA claimed that the lower price would save up to 1,000 lives annually by encouraging consumers to swap their older vehicles for new, safer purchases.

"It's no secret that the previous administration's approach focused almost exclusively on energy efficiency and carbon dioxide reductions," EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said June 3 during an event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. "We do not believe this is the right approach for public safety or the environment."

However, environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense Fund are seeking the release of the EPA's own modeling — called the Optimization Model for reducing Emissions of Greenhouse gases from Automobiles, or OMEGA, model — through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Records released in 2018 as part of the rulemaking docket show that EPA career staff's own analysis found the agencies' proposal would actually increase the number of vehicle fatalities by up to 17 deaths annually from 2036-2045 due to increased vehicle travel.

In the public records lawsuit, the EPA argued the latest version of the OMEGA model is exempt from disclosure because it is part of the deliberative process. But environmental groups have seized on the OMB's April guidance, noting the 11-page memo states that computer code used to perform a specialized analysis should be released to the public.

At issue are the differences between the underlying assumptions the EPA and NHTSA used as inputs for their respective models, said Jeff Alson, who helped craft the Obama-era standards, in a June 3 interview. A senior engineer and policy adviser in the EPA's Office of Transportation and Air Quality from 1978-2018, Alson has been an outspoken critic of the NHTSA's technical analysis of the proposal.

"It's not so much because the EPA model itself knows a lot more about vehicle safety than the NHTSA models knows about safety," he said. "It's that the EPA staff ran it in a technically defensible way with technically defensible assumptions, whereas NHTSA was cooking the books and turning the knobs ... so that their model would come out with these outlandish results."

Under the new OMB guidance, agency responses to requests for correction under the Information Quality Act should contain a "point-by-point" response to any data quality arguments and "should refer to a peer review that directly considered the issue being raised."

Critics of the memo have argued it could stymy federal rulemaking. And the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute has used the guidance to launch a fresh challenge to the EPA's 2009 determination that greenhouse gas emissions endanger human health and the environment.

"While commenters express no position here on the merits of the OMB memo, executive branch agencies must follow their own rules, including rules that voluntarily limit agency discretion," the environmental groups wrote.

With top congressional Democrats actively seeking more information from the EPA related to Wheeler's public statements about the SAFE rule, Wheeler on June 3 reiterated the claim that the proposal will save lives.

"Research shows that passengers are more likely to be killed in older vehicles compared to newer ones, and we know that older vehicles are less efficient and pollute more," he said. "So our approach is to achieve multiple policy goals by locking in emission reductions and getting older vehicles off the road, which will save lives and improve air quality."