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Will the Swamp Let Trump Reform Fuel Economy?

“GOP chairman may join Dems to preserve Obama auto regs,” E&E News reported this week. Reporter Camille von Kaenelle explains:

“At least one top Senate Republican is working with Democrats hoping to safeguard Obama-era fuel economy standards from Trump administration rollbacks.

Senate Democrats—led by Sens. Tom Carper of Delaware and Ed Markey of Massachusetts—have been courting GOP lawmakers in their bid to urge President Trump to preserve the government's fuel economy program for cars, sources told E&E News.

They've gotten the attention of Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, who has worked on drafts of the letter.

At least one copy of the letter sought to include Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, with jurisdiction over the Transportation Department. . . .

Snagging the support of two GOP chairmen would represent a coup for the Democrats in a chamber where bipartisan consensus on energy issues is far from common.”

The draft letter asks President Trump to “do everything possible to enable the continued success of the national fuel economy program.” By “national” program, the drafters mean not only the fuel economy standards the Obama administration devised in 2012 for model years 2022-2025.

In addition, the drafters mean the non-congressionally authorized scheme established by the Obama administration in 2010 through closed-door negotiations under a vow of silence. By the terms of that agreement, automobile fuel economy is regulated by three separate agencies—the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the California Air Resources Board (CARB)—via three sets of rules, under three different statutes.

The drafters appear to share auto industry concerns that if the “national” program unravels, California will be free to set its own fuel economy standards, creating a market-balkanizing patchwork of fuel economy requirements. Indeed it would—but only if courts uphold California’s authority to regulate fuel economy under the guise of regulating tailpipe greenhouse gas emissions.

Whatever accommodation to the Obama policy the Trump administration has to make in the immediate future to calm auto industry jitters, the long-term goal should be to abolish the source of the industry’s angst—California’s de-facto power to regulate fuel economy.

To that end, the administration should explore the legal implications of the Energy Policy and Conservation Act, which prohibits states, like California, from adopting or enforcing laws or regulations “related to fuel economy standards.”

Eventually, the administration should consider legislation to repeal fuel economy standards, allowing consumer choice and marketplace competition to determine vehicle fuel efficiency.