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Trump Administration Proposes Freezing Fuel Economy Standards

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Trump administration is hoping to roll back yet another Obama-era initiative. This time, it's on fuel economy standards. The administration just proposed freezing federal fuel economy targets at 2020 levels. The proposal sets up a legal showdown with California and other states who currently have the ability to set their own fuel economy standards. We're joined now by Craig Miller. He is science editor at KQED, our member station in San Francisco. He's been covering this issue for a long time. Craig, thanks for being here.

CRAIG MILLER, BYLINE: You're welcome.

MARTIN: So the Obama administration wanted to increase fuel efficiency standards. The Trump administration plan would freeze current federal fuel standards for cars and light trucks at 2020 levels.

MILLER: That's right.

MARTIN: What else can you tell us about what they want to do?

MILLER: (Laughter) Well, these are storm clouds that have been gathering for months now, really. As soon as the Trump administration came into power, the first EPA administrator under Trump, Scott Pruitt, started threatening to do this. So basically...

MARTIN: So this has been a long time coming.

MILLER: It has been a long time coming. The - no surprises here, really. Basically, the plan is to take these fuel economy standards which were going to be ratcheting up continuously all the way through 2025, but to freeze that process at 2020 and put those last five years or so of tightening - ever-tightening standards on the shelf for now, at least. The Trump administration is calling this a, quote, "much-needed time-out and a correction," which is kind of an interesting choice of words.

MARTIN: What is their argument here?

MILLER: Well, they've got a couple of arguments. You know, one is that they claim that the current standards as they're set to go into effect are going to be too tough on consumers, too tough on the auto industry. And also that it compromises safety. And actually, they're really leaning hard on this safety argument, claiming that, you know, if fuel economy standards are more lax, then people can drive bigger, heavier cars and that supposedly this would save a thousand lives per year on the highways. This is a claim that independent experts have, I say, questioned to say the least, saying that, no, these modern cars which are lighter and more fuel efficient perform just as well in crash safety.

MARTIN: Also, I mean, isn't - the argument by some automakers has been, hey, we want to make more fuel-efficient vehicles because in the long term it's what consumers want. Consumers are demanding these kinds of cars.

MILLER: Well, in the long term, it's - it's what they're going to need to do to remain competitive, frankly, because, you know, there's a world market for cars. But automakers are in an interesting position here. (Inaudible) some of them kind of jumped on the Trump bandwagon and said, yeah, yeah, (inaudible) some of those fuel efficiency standards back. And then it's like they kind of had second thoughts about this and said, wait a minute, this whole thing could lead to a divided - to a double standard, you know, for fuel economy around the country if we're not careful, you know, where we have to make two types of cars - one for California, you know, one for the rest of the country.

Right now, we have a unified standard which was negotiated under the Obama administration. Do we want to go back to having two standards? That's going to be more expensive for everybody. And so that's - that seems to be the one thing that everybody can agree on in this process is that nobody wants two different standards. Everybody seems to want a single national standard. The question is, who should set it, and should it be higher or lower?

MARTIN: Let's get to where this leaves California because I noted in the intro California was able to carve out an exception for itself. It gets to set its own fuel-efficiency standards, right? So what does this mean ruling - what does the ruling mean for them?

MILLER: Well, what it does is it puts that up for review, which is a kind of a question mark as to where that will lead. But California and several other states have already sued to stop this even before the wraps were off it. Back in May, they filed a lawsuit which is working its way through the courts.

MARTIN: All right. We'll see where that lands. Craig Miller is science editor at member station KQED in San Francisco. Craig, thanks so much for sharing your reporting and your expertise on this. We appreciate it.

MILLER: You're welcome, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.