Trump’s vehicle emissions rollback faces EPA Inspector General probe

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The Environmental Protection Agency’s Inspector General has opened an investigation into its own agency’s role in the Trump administration’s replacement of an Obama-era rule that curbed greenhouse gas emissions in cars. The Inspector General’s office will examine whether there were any “irregularities” during the process of crafting the new rule — dubbed the Safer Affordable Fuel Efficient Vehicles rule, or SAFE — which holds automakers to weaker fuel economy standards through 2025.

Those potential “irregularities” were flagged in May by Sen. Tom Carper (DE), who asked for an investigation in a letter to the EPA Inspector General at the time.

“I’m pleased that the EPA Inspector General is opening an investigation into this rule, which was the product of the most procedurally problematic process my office has ever reviewed. If the EPA IG follows the facts, I have no doubt they will find that the Trump Administration failed to follow the law,” Carper said in a statement Monday.

“EPA will respond to the OIG through the appropriate channels,” EPA Spokesperson James Hewitt said in a statement. “As finalized, the SAFE Vehicles Rule provides a sensible, single national program that strikes the right regulatory balance, protects our environment, and sets reasonable targets for the auto industry, while supporting our economy and the safety of American families.”

The probe is the newest development the years-long fight over the Obama-era rule, which was one of Trump’s first major policy actions after taking office in 2017. It’s also one of many Trump decisions to be examined by an Inspector General — a form of oversight that has proved so potent that the president has fired or replaced multiple Inspectors General this year alone.

The Obama-era rule was announced in 2009 and was put in place in 2012. It required automakers to improve the average fuel economy of their new vehicle fleets by 5 percent every year out to 2025 (model year 2026), ultimately arriving at 54 miles per gallon. On its way out the door in 2016 and early 2017, the Obama-era EPA performed a “mid-term review” of the progress being made and found automakers were “over-complying” with the rule and left it in place.

In March 2017, Trump tasked the EPA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration with performing a new review of the rule, which was one of Obama’s signature climate crisis policies, after automakers told him they wanted more flexibility. His administration initially tried to freeze the progressive standards entirely, but ultimately settled on 1.5 percent increases in average fuel economy — essentially adding 1 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, increasing gasoline consumption by around 80 billion gallons and oil consumption by 2 billion barrels.

The Trump administration tried to justify this by arguing that the looser regulations would lower the upfront cost of a new car by around $1,000. It also argued that if the Obama-era rule was left in place, more people would buy used cars that are dirtier and less safe specifically because the new cars would be that much more expensive.

There are many reasons to debate those findings, and the Trump administration rule is being challenged in court. The lengthy process of crafting the rule (and arriving at those conclusions) was also reportedly a mess, full of shoddy math and infighting between EPA and NHTSA.

It’s that process that the EPA’s Inspector General will now take a look at.

In a letter to the EPA, the Inspector General is asking for “[a]ny briefing materials or written summaries” that were drawn up for the rule, comments and communication from agency staff to NHTSA related to the draft of the rule, and more.

“The documents obtained by my office — which have now also been formally requested by the EPA Inspector General — demonstrate significant irregularities and illegalities throughout the Trump Administration’s preparation and finalization of its SAFE Vehicles rule, which was fraught with fatal flaws from the start,” Carper said Monday.

Janet McCabe, who led the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation under Obama and worked on the original emissions program, said in an email to The Verge that “many have expressed concern” about the Trump EPA’s rulemaking process.

“It appeared that EPA was deferring to DOT on issues of methodology and analysis in ways that would help support an outcome that ignored progress in the real world and not be in keeping with EPA’s responsibility under the Clean Air Act,” she said.

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