Air chief won’t target Calif. waiver ‘right away’

Source: Camille von Kaenel, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, January 29, 2018

U.S. EPA’s air chief is trying to sound a conciliatory tone as tricky negotiations over clean car rules ramp up, but he isn’t ruling out a future effort to torpedo California’s ability to set its own rules for car pollution.

Speaking to the Washington Auto Show yesterday, EPA air chief Bill Wehrum committed to work out differences in tailpipe rules with California in an attempt to soothe industry concerns about a regulatory patchwork.

EPA has three months to decide whether to lower the fuel economy standards for vehicles from model years 2021 to 2025. Officials from California — which has special authority under the Clean Air Act to set separate pollution rules for cars — have vowed to fight the Trump administration if it weakens the rules. The negotiations have intensified with several meetings in the past two months.

Wehrum told manufacturers, advocates, analysts and journalists at the annual auto show in Washington, D.C., yesterday that he wants to maintain compatibility between the federal and state rules. The auto industry fears having to make separate cars to meet differing rules in various parts of the country and has often repeated that its chief priority is “one national program.”

“We’ve heard loud and clear that having one national program is really important,” Wehrum said. “We have been talking a lot amongst ourselves in the federal government, and we have also had what I consider productive conversations with CARB [the California Air Resources Board], and I look forward to continuing those conversations.”

He also reiterated that the Trump administration is not proposing to revoke any of California’s special waivers to regulate air pollution. California politicians and environmentalists continue to raise concerns about the waiver, partly because Wehrum tried to block California’s waiver when he previously worked at EPA (Climatewire, Oct. 5, 2017).

“I have no interest whatsoever in withdrawing California’s authority right away,” he said yesterday.

California officials have said they would fight a lowering of the targets, but they have hinted they could accept some additional flexibility in the regulation in exchange for guaranteed rules through 2030.

“We’ve acknowledged that we’ve had in-person talks, and they’ve been good,” Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board, told E&E News this month. “Nobody’s coming to the meeting and threatened that if we didn’t do what they wanted, they’d take away our waiver.”

Yet weeks earlier, she had sounded a “note of alarm” over the continued availability of the nuclear option of revoking the waiver. She indicated that the range of outcomes is still wide open and could include EPA refusing to issue waivers for California to pursue standards for future model years or even rescinding the current waiver for the existing standards, which 13 other states have also agreed to.

Some environmentalists interpreted Wehrum’s commitment to one national program as a threat to California’s rules, which could be eliminated and subsumed into one set of weaker federal rules if the Trump administration chose to do so.

“Our objective is to stay together,” Wehrum said when asked for any substantive proposals.

The auto industry had criticized the Obama EPA’s decision to maintain strict rules through 2025 because it came ahead of schedule. They also called the technical analysis that found automakers could meet the rules with existing and developing technology flawed, pointing to industry-sponsored research that reached slightly different conclusions.

Wehrum alluded to the debate in his comments.

“Whatever we decide, it’s really important it be based on merit, technical merit,” Wehrum said yesterday. “I can tell you it’s a high priority, to ground what we’re doing in good engineering and good science.”

EPA has already cited industry-sponsored research in its decision to repeal a clean truck rule that would have applied for the first time to glider kits, truck frames designed to hold refurbished old engines.

Reporter Debra Kahn contributed.