WASHINGTON — Senior administration officials are clashing over President Trump’s plan to roll back a major environmental rule and let cars emit more tailpipe pollution, according to 11 people familiar with the confrontation.
The officials are in disagreement over whether the proposal can withstand legal challenge.
The rollback, one of the most consequential proposals of the Trump administration, not only would permit more planet-warming pollution from cars, it would also challenge the right of California and other states to set their own, more restrictive state-level pollution standards.
On one side is the Environmental Protection Agency’s acting chief, Andrew Wheeler, who has tried to put the brakes on the plan, fearing that its legal and technical arguments are weak and will set up the Trump administration for an embarrassing courtroom loss.
Wheeler inherited the proposal from his predecessor, Scott Pruitt, who resigned July 5 under a cloud of ethics investigations.
On the other side are top officials at the Transportation Department, Jeffrey A. Rosen and Heidi King, two of the proposal’s chief authors.
Rosen, a former George W. Bush administration official known for his zeal to undo federal regulations, is pushing the controversial proposal on the expectation that by the time any challenge makes it to the Supreme Court, the court’s makeup will be more friendly to a conservative, anti-regulatory policy, according to individuals familiar with his thinking.
Rosen and King have also justified their proposal with a new analysis concluding that the stricter Obama-era pollution rules would lead to thousands of deaths in road accidents. They argue that more fuel-efficient cars are less safe because they are lighter.
The plan’s official release has been delayed by what one person familiar with the talks called “a nuclear war” between Wheeler on one side and Rosen and King on the other. Wheeler has sharply questioned the auto fatality numbers and fears that if they are proven faulty, that will undermine the legal case for the rollback, according to people familiar with his argument.
This report is based on interviews with five people who are either former employees of the two agencies or former Trump administration officials, as well as six industry lobbyists and others close to the negotiations.
For now, the White House is siding with Rosen. Trump is expected to announce the proposal next week.
In a separate development, Wheeler has reversed Pruitt’s final policy decision, which would have allowed more highly polluting trucks on the nation’s roads.
Wheeler’s decision, outlined in a memo to his top air policy staff, formally vacated the move Pruitt made on his last day in office, earlier this month, before resigning amid a host of ethics investigations.
Pruitt had told manufacturers that the agency would not enforce a cap on what are known as “glider” trucks — vehicles with older and less efficient engines installed.
“I have concluded that the application of current regulations to the glider industry does not represent the kind of extremely unusual circumstances that support the EPA’s exercise of enforcement discretion,” Wheeler wrote.
If the Trump administration loosens federal pollution rules for cars, California has vowed to stick with its own stricter standards and to sue the administration. California has a waiver under the 1970 Clean Air Act to set its own air pollution regulations, and a dozen other states follow its lead.
If California fights to retain its rule, it could result in a huge legal battle that is likely to reach the Supreme Court.
The new emissions proposal, which is to be jointly released by the EPA and the Transportation Department, was largely completed in May.
It was sent by both agencies to the White House for review, after which it was expected to be published in June or early July in the Federal Register.