Even before taking office in January, then President-elect Joe Biden faced heavy pressure to tighten federal tailpipe regulations, reversing cuts enacted by his predecessor, Donald Trump.
Michael Regan, the new EPA administrator, said this week updated emissions standards are coming and should be announced by July. While the nation’s environmental chief did not offer specific details, he also wouldn’t rule out the possibility that future mandates would lead to the phase out of vehicles using internal combustion engines, according to Bloomberg News.
“We need to go as far as we can to meet the demands of the day,” Regan told the news service. “The science indicates we have a short window in time to reverse the path that we’re on and mitigate against certain climate impacts.”
Federal guidelines enacted during the Obama administration set a target for automakers to deliver an average 54 miles per gallon by the 2026 model year. The Trump administration implemented a rollback last year that has since been tied up in federal court. It also ended the waiver granted the State of California to set even tougher carbon emissions standards.
While a number of automakers backed the Trump move, others formed a coalition with the California Air Resources Board, or CARB, creating a compromise rule that many observers expect to serve as a model for what the Biden EPA ultimately announces. The administration is believed to be seeking some sort of compromise that could win support from both the environmental community and the auto industry — as did the original Obama-era guidelines.
For his part, Regan said he believes in “consensus building.”
Seeking compromise and consensus
“We are heavily engaged with the business community. We are heavily engaged with the labor community,” Regan said in his interview. “It’s a false option to choose between economic development and prosperity and environmental protection.”
California has long had the ability to set its own standards for traditionally defined automotive pollutants, such as carbon monoxide and oxides of nitrogen. These have typically been tougher than the federal standards. Under Obama, however, the state received a waiver allowing it to set carbon emissions mandates, as well. Carbon dioxide output is directly related to fuel consumption, so, the rule provided a back-door method for CARB to set stricter mileage targets.
And 13 other states adopted the tougher California rules, meaning higher fuel economy standards for about 40% of the U.S. population.
Outright ban on ICE vehicles under study
California took things a next step when, last year, Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order banning the sale of new vehicles using internal combustion engines after 2035. New Jersey followed with a similar order a few months later.
Pete Buttigieg, Biden’s new Transportation secretary, took a cautious position during confirmation hearings when asked about whether a similar federal ban could follow. For his part, EPA Chief Regan left that possibility open.
“We’re taking a strong look at what the science is urging us to do. We’re looking at where technologies are,” Regan said. “We’re marrying our regulatory policy and what we have the statutory authority to do with where the science directs us and where the markets and technology are.”
Taking politics out of science
Regan, like Buttigieg and new Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, have collectively emphasized the need to set federal guidelines that are based on science, critics saying their Trump administration predecessors frequently focused on rulemaking-as-politics, or as a way to curry favor with their boss, President Trump.
Tailpipe emissions and fuel economy rules could be two of the highest-profile issues Regan will deal with during his time at the EPA. But the agency is “laser focused” on another transportation-related issue: the release of greenhouse gases, like methane from oil and natural gas wells and pipelines.
Those and other steps are believed critical for the U.S. to meet its global warming commitments as Biden brings the country back into the Paris Climate Agreement.
“EPA,” said Regan, “has a critical role to play in delivering on President Biden’s aggressive climate agenda to achieve a carbon-pollution-free power sector by 2035 and put the United States on path to a net-zero economy by 2050.”