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EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's plans to rollback CAFE has triggered a major backlash.

A coalition of consumer and environmental groups plans to drive from Washington, D.C. to Detroit this week to deliver over 250,000 signatures demanding that the auto industry  — Ford in particular — back off on its call to roll back the Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards.

If that doesn’t work, a separate coalition, this one comprising 17 states and the District of Columbia, has filed suit against the Environmental Protection Agency to prevent Administrator Scott Pruitt from going ahead with plans to rollback mileage rules established under the Obama Administration. While the EPA hasn’t announced a final plan, a draft resolution indicated it would target something just under 42 miles per gallon, down from the original 2025 target of 54.5 mpg.

“This is about health, it’s about life and death,” California Governor Jerry Brown said last week during a news conference announcing the lawsuit. “This phalanx of states will defend the nation’s clean car standards to boost gas mileage and curb toxic air pollution,” Brown said while referring to the controversial EPA chief as “Outlaw Pruitt.”

As the largest new vehicle market in the country, California has taken a lead on the legal front, though other states suing the EPA include Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.

Ford CEO Jim Hackett and Chairman Bill Ford have reversed the automaker's stand on a CAFE rollback.

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California has a double reason for trying to block the plan put together by Pruitt and the EPA. The Trump Administration is not only attempting to freeze the phase-in of tougher mileage standards at the target set for 2021, but also to eliminate the special waiver the Golden State has allowing it to set even tougher emissions standards than the rest of the country, part of the original Clean Air Act of 1970. Under that exception, other states can either adopt the federal mandate or opt for California’s target.

A dozen states now have signed onto the tougher mandate. And with them representing almost a third of overall U.S. new vehicle purchases, it’s widely accepted in the industry that manufacturers wouldn’t be able to roll back their mileage goals unless the California waiver is eliminated.

Privately, sources say there has been teeth gnashing among industry leaders who were surprised by how sharply Pruitt’s EPA was ready to roll back the CAFE target. Most had been hoping to see a number in the mid- to high-40 mpg range.

The timing of the EPA move also could prove to be a problem as fuel prices haven’t been this high in several years, and with while the national average is now approaching $3.00 a gallon for regular unleaded, according to tracking service, supply shortages have some wondering if the figure could soon approach the $4 range not seen since early in the Obama Administration.

With fuel prices nudging back towards prior records, public support for CAFE has been growing.

The surge in fuel prices may work to the advantage, in fact, of consumer and environmental groups taking their fight not only to the courts but to the public. Public Citizen, Sierra Club, Greenpeace USA, CREDO and Care2 all plan to arrive in downtown Detroit in time for a 10 AM news conference at the site where Ford Motor Co. was originally incorporated more than 100 years ago. Later in the day, driving a “Dirty Ford,” a 2006 Focus sedan “that has been redesigned to feature a black cloud of pollution suspended on the car’s roof, a tailpipe fog machine and money spewing from the gas tank,” the group plans to deliver 250,000 signatures to Ford World Headquarters in the suburb of Dearborn.

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The choice of Ford, among Detroit’s Big Three reflects the fact that the automaker has been one of the most vocal in calling for a CAFE rollback, former CEO Mark Fields last year telling then-new President Donald Trump the mileage rules could cost more than 1 million American jobs. More recently, Ford has announced plans to phase out almost its entire passenger car line-up in favor of less energy-efficient SUVs, CUVs and other light trucks.

Despite Fields’ public comments last year, Ford officials have already tried to reposition the company’s stance on CAFE, executive chairman, Bill Ford, and president and chief executive Jim Hackett last week issuing a statement declaring, “We support increasing clean car standards through 2025 and are not asking for a rollback.”

Despite that apparent reversal and comments by several other manufacturers, including Honda and Nissan, that they will continue to aim for the original 54.5 mpg target, the EPA does not appear to be backing off on the CAFE revisions Pruitt has called for.

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