EPA's potential MPG regulation rollback could end up in a legal battle

The one-year revisiting of Obama-era standards has finally ended.

Andrew Krok Reviews Editor / Cars
Cars are Andrew's jam, as is strawberry. After spending years as a regular ol' car fanatic, he started working his way through the echelons of the automotive industry, starting out as social-media director of a small European-focused garage outside of Chicago. From there, he moved to the editorial side, penning several written features in Total 911 Magazine before becoming a full-time auto writer, first for a local Chicago outlet and then for CNET Cars.
Andrew Krok
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Last March, the Trump administration announced that it would take one year to revisit increased Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. That year is up, and the expected result is likely to involve the courts.

The EPA is expected to reject the fuel economy standards put in place at the end of the Obama administration, Reuters reports. Scott Pruitt, the current EPA administrator, is set to sign a declaration this weekend that will confirm the decision to change the standards, which affects vehicle efficiency for 2022 through 2025.

Traffic jam in Chicago
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Traffic jam in Chicago

It will take nothing short of ludicrous gas prices to once again push Americans back into more fuel-efficient vehicles, it appears.

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Lofty goals

Currently, the goal is to increase CAFE regulations to approximately 50 mpg by 2025. It's important to note that CAFE fuel economy is measured differently than the numbers you see on window stickers. Real-world average economy is closer to 40 mpg. CAFE figures include adjustments that cover things like automakers' use of environmentally friendly refrigerant and other things that don't factor into the fuel economy figures most consumers see.

Originally put in place in 2012, the EPA looked at the figures again just before the changing of the presidential guard and determined that it would hold the course, despite belief that the regulations could actually be strengthened. Past EPA estimates believed that the current 2025 standards would decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 540 million metric tons and save consumers upwards of $1,500 per vehicle.

Battlefield: California

California is where the potential legal battle begins. California has a great deal of power when it comes to setting its own environmental standards, some of which end up affecting how cars are developed nationwide. If the EPA reverses course but California does not, automakers could very well continue to build cars to higher fuel economy standards because trying to build the same cars to two different standards would be a right pain.

Environmental groups and other states have shown support for California's decisions in the past, and could well band together to challenge whatever new regulations the EPA decides upon. The EPA did not immediately return a request for comment.

View of Downtown Los Angeles
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View of Downtown Los Angeles

In case you can't remember why California got on the environmental regulation train early, this is why.

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Automakers are kind of caught in the crossfire here, even though they're also shooting. While automakers would like to save money by rolling back lofty MPG goals and appealing to consumers' current desires for larger, thirstier vehicles, they also don't want confusion between states, instead preferring to work with one single nationwide standard.

The EPA could well go nuclear and attempt to rescind California's ability to set its own standards, which was established in Section 177 of the Clean Air Act. California had some mild (read: severe) pollution issues, so when the federal government got around to dealing with the same issue, it let California continue to set its own standards. 

It remains the only state that can mandate its own vehicle emissions standards, and several states have since decided to adhere to stronger California regulations over weaker federal ones. It would be a difficult path to take, because it would require changes to the Clean Air Act, but it's one that Pruitt has not explicitly shot down.