Congressman Steps Up Probe Into Fuel Economy Rules

By Scott Doggett November 30, 2011

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Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of California, who has attacked efforts by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to improve the fuel economy of vehicles sold in the United States, has sent letters to the chief executives of automakers that approved proposed fuel economy standards, asking them if in their discussions with regulators they felt coerced into approving the standards or cut a deal with the officials for their support. Meanwhile, CARB Chairwoman Mary Nichols has sent a letter to Issa, defending her agency's role in reducing climate-changing tailpipe emissions and said Issa's argument questioning the state's ability to curb those emissions has been shot down by various courts and "defies common sense."

CARB, along with automakers, labor unions, the EPA and the Department of Transportation, reached an agreement last year on setting fuel economy standards for model years 2012-2016 and this year on a proposal for 2017-2025 standards. CARB had a seat at the table because, under federal law, it has the right to regulate certain tailpipe emissions to protect the quality of the air in California. Other states have the right to adopt California's standards and at least 13, plus the District of Columbia, have done so. Together, they represent half of the U.S. new-car market -- a market the auto industry cannot afford to ignore.

In a letter sent early this month, Issa accused California and the states that adopted CARB's emissions standards of creating "an unworkable patchwork of regulations that would wreak havoc on the industry" by adopting standards that would force automakers who want to sell light-duty cars and trucks in those states to produce vehicles that get better fuel economy than the federal government would otherwise require. By setting tailpipe emissions standards -- which are directly related to the amount of carbon-based fuel burned per mile traveled -- CARB is in effect setting the fuel-economy standards necessary to achieve them, Issa claimed. Because the states' standards tend to be higher the federal government's, they would create "confusion" and would "encourage renewed litigation and drive up the cost of the compliance to automobile manufacturers and consumers alike," he wrote three weeks ago.

Court Approved
In her response this week, CARB's Nichols said that California's authority to regulate pollution has been in place since long before the Energy Policy and Conservation Act (EPCA), which was signed into law by President Ford in 1975. She said CARB's authority has been re-affirmed, and even expanded, several times since EPCA, despite widespread recognition that pollution standards may affect fuel economy. In fact, EPCA, as amended by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, expressly prohibited any preemption of state pollution standards, she said in her letter to Issa. "Every federal court that has heard this misguided preemption mantra has soundly dismissed it," she wrote. "As the United States District Court in Fresno found, 'The court concludes that, just as the Massachusetts [v EPA Supreme Court decision] held EPA's duty to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions under the Clean Air Act overlaps but does not conflict with DOT's duty to set fuel efficiency standards under EPCA, so too California's effort to regulate greenhouse gas emissions through the waiver of preemption provisions of the Clean Air Act overlaps, but does not conflict with DOT's activities under EPCA.' "

Regardless, Issa is pressing the country's major automakers for information about a series of closed-door negotiations with Obama administration and CARB officials that yielded tougher fuel-economy standards. The wealthy businessman-turned-politician sent letters Monday to the CEOs of 15 major automakers, requesting information on their role in the negotiations. The automakers worked closely with government officials and others for months in a series of high-stakes negotiations that resulted in tougher fuel economy standards for light-duty cars and trucks, as well as heavy-duty trucks. The administration ultimately won the support of many of the country's major automakers.

In an 11-page letter to the chief executives, Issa wrote asked them for their voluntary participation in a review of the process by which their companies, government officials and others agreed to the proposed fuel-economy standards. "How will the ... rulemaking affect your sales? Please indicate how many more or how many fewer automobiles you anticipate selling as a result of the rule," Issa wrote. Citing a 2009 New York Times report that participants tried to "put nothing in writing, ever," Issa asked the auto executives if "anyone in your company [was] ever instructed to avoid written correspondence or note-taking? If so, by whom?"

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