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The Insider

Vehicle GHG Rule, RFS Fights Highlight Concern Over EPA Policy Agenda

Disputes within and outside EPA over its proposed rollback of fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards, the future of the renewable fuel standard (RFS) and other issues are highlighting concerns from various stakeholders about the agency's vehicle policy agenda.

Clashes on the emissions rule and RFS -- including a fight over allowing greater sales of ethanol -- are just some of the areas where recent criticism of EPA is crossing party lines, showing the rocky path ahead for finalizing and defending rules on the agency's use of science and cost-benefit reviews along with sector-specific policies like vehicle standards.

On the vehicle GHG emissions rule, documents posted online this week from the interagency review phase of rulemaking show deep divisions between EPA staff and the National Highway Travel Safety Authority (NHTSA) that also crafted the rollback proposal.

According to the files, EPA staff not only objected to NHTSA's decisions to overrule them in developing the vehicle rule, but demanded -- with some success -- that they not be credited as co-writers of an analysis of the rollback's costs and benefits:

Stymied In Rulemaking, Staff Sought To Omit EPA From Vehicle Rule RIA
EPA staff has been essentially frozen out of crafting the detailed justification for the Trump administration's plan to roll back vehicle greenhouse gas and fuel economy standards, to the point where the agency asked that its logo and a reference to its technical staff be removed from a draft regulatory impact analysis (RIA) weeks before the plan was issued.

The request was only partially granted, but still underscores the extent to which NHTSA and White House officials overruled EPA on the vehicle rule, after staff reports sharply criticized major elements of the draft plan, including its claimed safety benefits.

EPA's own analysis suggests the plan could actually result in a small increase in fatalities and that it overstates the costs of complying with the current, Obama-era standards -- a finding sure to figure in any legal challenge to the rollback.

Meanwhile, the proposal to scrap California's waiver to enforce more-stringent emissions rules than EPA is drawing criticism from a law professor who has been a prominent supporter of the Trump administration's deregulatory efforts, including on environmental policy:

Deregulatory Advocate Faults Vehicle Rollback For Undercutting Federalism
A prominent deregulatory advocate says the Trump administration's plan to roll back vehicle greenhouse gas limits and undo California's Clean Air Act power to set stricter standards undermines its professed support for “cooperative federalism,” and warns that scrapping the state's zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) sales mandate is legally “vulnerable.”

Case Western Reserve University professor Jonathan Adler used an Aug. 9 op-ed in the National Review to argue that revoking the waiver is at odds with the administration's emphasis on “cooperative federalism,” writing that EPA and NHTSA are “now bending over backwards to preclude individual states from making their own regulatory decisions.”

In particular, he says, the administration seems to be on shaky ground in its effort to scrap California's mandate for automakers to sell larger numbers of electric or zero-emission vehicles -- which has been adopted by nine additional states under Clean Air Act section 177 in an effort to spur deployment of electric vehicle technology.

By contrast, the fight over the RFS is ramping up even though acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has yet to signal that he will back any of the oil or ethanol sector's demanded reforms for the program since becoming the acting agency chief on July 9.

With no major action from EPA, the industries are mounting public campaigns on whether it should approve a year-round waiver for sales of gasoline blended with 15 percent ethanol (E15), which the biofuels and farm industries strongly support but refiners -- represented by groups including the American Petroleum Institute -- say would damage fuel infrastructure:

API Steps Up Attack On Biofuels Industry Push For Year-Round E15 Waiver
The American Petroleum Institute (API) is stepping up its attack on the biofuels industry push for EPA to grant a waiver allowing year-round sales of ethanol blends up to 15 percent (E15), warning that the domestic fuel market lacks the necessary infrastructure to handle E15 and that the fuel poses a risk of damage to car, motorbike and boat engines.

The biofuels industry has been stepping up its push for Wheeler to grant the E15 waiver, arguing that former Administrator Scott Pruitt's RFS implementation was unfairly pro-refiner -- especially since he granted a series of waivers from RFS blending requirements to small refiners that may have cut demand for the fuels by as much as 2 billion gallons.

Some observers expected that announcement to come Aug. 13, when Wheeler spent the day with Iowa officials who are all strongly pro-biofuels, but that visit led to no new policy announcement, raising fresh uncertainty on the subject -- especially since some legislators have argued that EPA lacks authority for a year-round E15 waiver unless Congress changes the RFS law:

Wheeler's Iowa Visit Leaves Much RFS Uncertainty
Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler vowed to bring “certainty” to farmers at the Iowa State Fair yesterday, though his discussion of the hottest environmental topic in the state -- the renewable fuel standard (RFS) -- left a lot of issues, well, uncertain.