Washington — The politics of fuel economy just got messier.
EPA's surprise decision last week to uphold its greenhouse-gas targets keeps the auto industry pretty much where it was, on the road to cleaner and more efficient cars, and in pursuit of a light-vehicle fleet that averages more than 50 mpg by 2025.
But it significantly reduces the latitude for automakers to seek changes to the grand bargain they struck with federal and California regulators in 2011 to advance President Obama's energy and environmental agenda. It also limits the options for the incoming administration of Donald Trump to reconcile the rules with his deregulatory campaign rhetoric.
The EPA ruling compresses the promised midterm evaluation of the government's ambitious fuel economy program.
The midterm evaluation, which formally began in July, was a big reason that auto CEOs stood in support of Obama in 2011 when he announced what has come to be known as the One National Program of aligned greenhouse-gas and fuel-economy regulations.
Automakers knew they'd be expected to meet ever-stricter standards in exchange for regulatory clarity. But they were counting on an extended period of data analysis and discussions as an opportunity to vie for changes to the standards to reflect technological hurdles and marketplace realities.
Just weeks ago, industry leaders were seizing on the surprise election of Donald Trump to appeal for even more time to deliberate the feasibility and economic costs of the program, in light of low gasoline prices, booming light-truck sales and tepid demand for hybrids and electric cars.
Instead, EPA hit the fast-forward button with its proposal to keep the standards as they are, subject to a 30-day comment period. A final ruling, whose original deadline was April 2018, could now come within a month.
The new timeline makes it possible for Obama's appointee, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, to be the one who issues the final ruling. If that happens, it would be much tougher for the incoming administration to change the 2025 model year standards, said Dave Cooke, senior vehicles analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
"They would have to do a new rulemaking," Cooke said. "That's a large undertaking. This is years' worth of data and pretty rigorous analytic work justifying this conclusion. You can't just snap your fingers and say, "I don't like what the data concludes.'"
The truncated process also helps keep the broader goals of the One National Program on track with more work still to do. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration must still set Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards for 2022-2025. The Transportation Department last week said it planned to do so soon, and consider a request by automakers to streamline nagging differences between CAFE and EPA's standards.