The CAFE we could have had

White House intervention at the EPA is back in the news.EPA logo upside down

The House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming finally received some long-awaited documents from the EPA. In a letter to President Bush, Committee Chairman Markey indicated what the EPA was recommending before the White House stepped in to weaken the regulations. First Representative Markey sets the stage:

On May 14, 2007, you directed EPA, along with other agencies, to prepare a regulatory response to Massachusetts v. EPA by the end of 2007 and to complete it by the end of 2008. According to reports, EPA staff spent about six months developing this proposal, and transmitted both a positive finding of endangerment to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and a draft regulatory proposal to require the equivalent of 35 miles per gallon (mpg) fuel economy standard from the fleet of cars and light trucks by 2018 to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in early December, 2007.

Based on the Committee staff’s review of the EPA’s draft Endangerment Finding and the Draft EPA Vehicle Preamble to NHTSA, entitled “Control of Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Motor Vehicles,” dated December 5 and 14 2007, respectively, we now know that last December the EPA — the expert agency charged with administering the Clean Air Act — was prepared to make appropriate recommendations based on the science and the law to combat global warming. Yet for reasons that remain cloaked in secrecy, those recommendations from the adminstrations’ science and legal experts were discarded. Instead, as EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson informed me in a March 27, 2008 letter, the EPA was instead preparing, apparently at the direction of the White House, a plan for no-action during your watch: an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) that would ensure the sun would set on the Bush Administration without any regulatory action taken on global warming. The White House’s last minute U-turn in response to a Supreme Court mandate is deeply troubling. But we will not know how troubling, and how completely the legal and scientific conclusions that the EPA reached in December will be discarded, until the ANPR is released.

The letter goes on to recite the likely effects of global warming, with which Climate Progress readers are well familiar. It then reveals what the EPA planned to do:

  • EPA proposed that regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles be implemented in order to achieve the equivalent of 35 mpg car and light truck fleet average by 2018 (with the car fleet averaging 38.4 mpg by 2018 and the truck fleet averaging 31 mpg by 2017).
  • These proposed standards were estimated to yield annual net societal benefits of almost $55 billion by 2040. It bears emphasis that these benefits were calculated using Energy Information’s (EIA’s) 2007 mid-range projected gasoline prices of $2.03/gallon in 2017 to $2.22/gallon in 2030. (These projections were the most recent data available at the time the materials were prepared.) EPA’s analysis concluded that the benefits would be much higher using more realistic gasoline prices because higher gasoline price projections would increase the consumer savings associated with driving more efficient vehicles. …
  • When EPA used the EIA 2007 high gasoline price projections of $2.75 in 2017 to $3.20 in 2030 to calculate standards, it found that the car fleet could achieve a standard of 43.3 mpg by 2018 and light trucks could achieve a standard of 30.6 mpg by 2017.
  • EPA developed its proposed standards in close consultation with NHTSA, found they were compatible with the fuel economy standards set by NHTSA, and concluded that those gains could be achieved without undo adverse impacts on the auto industry, its workers or consumers.

So we could have had relief from soaring gasoline prices sooner, if it had not been for the White House intervention. In addition, if the EPA had been able to use 2008 actual gasoline prices instead of old 2017 to 2030 guesses, it would have likely been able to justify even higher MPG standards than 43.3 for cars in 2018.

In today’s Washington Post, the EPA also comes under fire from the former EPA Associate Deputy Administrator Jason Burnett, who resigned this month. He told the Washinton Post:

“In early December, I sent an e-mail with the formal finding that action must be taken to address the risk of climate change,” adding that he resigned his political appointment because the agency had been stymied in its efforts to respond to the Supreme Court. “The White House made it clear they did not want to address the ramifications of that finding and have decided to leave the challenge to the next administration. Some [at the White House] thought that EPA had mistakenly concluded that climate change endangers the public. It was no mistake.

The Washington Post went on to say:

The EPA is expected to release a watered-down version of its original proposal within a week, highlighting the extent to which Bush administration officials continue to resist mandatory federal limits on emissions linked to global warming.

… One EPA official said agency staff had encountered fierce opposition from Bush appointees on several of these sections. “They don’t even want us to talk about alternatives,” the official said, adding that Johnson and his top aides have been in an “intense negotiation” with White House officials on how much to alter the rulemaking, with Johnson working to resist major changes.

Unfortunately we are unlikely to ever hear the real reason that the White House decided to cut back on the net societal benefits of $55 billion (calculated using a now laughable $2/gallon). William Greider’s 1993 observations in Who Will Tell the People may however offer some insight even today:

The Republican party is not a party of conservative ideology. It is a party of conservative clients. Whenever possible, the ideology will be invoked as justification for taking care of the clients’ needs. When the two are in conflict, the conservative principles are discarded and the clients are served. … To understand the Republican party (or the Democratic party, for that matter), it is most efficient to look directly at the clients — or as political scientist Thomas Ferguson would call them, the “major investors.” On that level, the ideological contradictions are unimportant. Political parties do function as mediating institutions, only not for voters.

— Earl K.

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