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Trump administration sidelined experts in writing car pollution rules, EPA watchdog finds

The report, released Tuesday, may provide fresh fodder for the Biden administration to tighten mileage and greenhouse gas standards for new automobiles.
The report, released Tuesday, may provide fresh fodder for the Biden administration to tighten mileage and greenhouse gas standards for new automobiles.INA FASSBENDER/AFP via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration sidelined career staffers at the Environmental Protection Agency when weakening pollution rules for new passenger vehicles, according to a federal watchdog report.

The EPA’s inspector general found top political leaders at the agency failed to properly document and consider the concerns of staff experts while unwinding standards for tailpipe emissions set under former president Barack Obama.

The report, released Tuesday, may provide fresh fodder for the Biden administration to tighten mileage and greenhouse gas standards for new automobiles as part of a broader effort to phase out internal-combustion engines and drastically cut the nation’s climate-warming emissions.

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President Biden’s team is in the midst of negotiations with carmakers, autoworkers, and environmentalists for new pollution standards for new vehicles, aiming to protect factory jobs and cut emissions. The industry wants generous government incentives for producing cleaner cars, while labor leaders want to stave off job losses during the transition to electric vehicles.

The outcome of the talks will be crucial for US climate goals because the transportation sector is the nation’s largest source of emissions, according to the EPA.

In 2020, the Trump administration finalized a rule compelling car companies to improve the average fuel economy of their fleets by only 1.5 percent a year — a step back from the 5 percent annual increase set under Obama. Officials argued that forcing automakers to improve the efficiency too quickly would make cars too expensive, prodding people to keep driving older, less safe vehicles.

On paper, the lower emissions standards were signed jointly by the EPA and the Transportation Department’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But according to the inspector general’s report, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt decided that the NHTSA, and not his own experts, would complete “all modeling and analysis on behalf of both agencies.”

The result was that many EPA staffers felt shut out of the process of making one of the agency’s most important rules. One manager at its Office of Air and Radiation told investigators that “no one at the EPA ever saw NHTSA’s model or input files” in the six months leading up to the release of the final rule.

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Jeff Alson, a former engineer at the EPA’s vehicles lab in Ann Arbor, Mich., who retired in 2018, said Tuesday that staffers at the two entities worked closely to set greenhouse gas standards for new cars and trucks under Obama. That kind of collaboration didn’t happen under former president Donald Trump, he said.

“I feel like it really confirmed what I had seen,” Alson said of the inspector general’s investigation.

The Trump administration’s decision also meant the EPA failed to properly analyze the rollback’s impact on Americans especially vulnerable to auto emissions, including poor and minority communities often situated near highways and children susceptible to developing asthma, according to the report.

Environmental groups cheered the report’s release, as did Democrats in Congress who previously raised concerns about how the Trump administration watered down auto standards.

“Like many things in life, how you conduct yourself matters. This is especially true when it comes to agencies engaged in federal rulemaking,” said Senator Thomas R. Carper, a Delaware Democrat who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and who initially requested the inspector general’s review. “Government actions affect the health and well-being of people across our country and our planet, so it’s critical that these decisions are made through a deliberate, thoughtful process.”

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Alice Henderson, a senior attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund, said the EPA must now “step up to its statutory role and responsibility to protect human health” as it again considers auto emissions standards. Before the end of the month, the agency is expected to restore California’s authority to set its own car pollution rules, which was revoked under Trump. And Biden’s EPA chief, Michael Regan, has said the administration is aiming to propose new nationwide limits on greenhouse gas emissions from cars by July.

Nick Conger, a spokesman for Regan, said the agency appreciates the inspector general’s probe and “values transparency in the rulemaking process.”