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Wheeler Tours EPA Vehicles Lab as Fuel Economy Tensions Simmer

Aug. 17, 2018, 3:27 PM

The EPA’s acting chief is adding a trip to the agency’s state-of-the-art vehicles laboratory in Ann Arbor, Mich., to his Aug. 17 visit to the state as a battle breaks out over the Trump administration’s fuel economy standards rollback.

Environmental Protection Agency Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler will tour the National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory and meet briefly with agency career staff, according to a draft agenda of his visit obtained by Bloomberg Environment. Wheeler’s predecessor, Scott Pruitt, didn’t visit the vehicles lab during his tenure, although EPA air chief Bill Wehrum has made multiple trips to Ann Arbor.

The Ann Arbor trip adds to Wheeler’s publicly announced visit to Pointe Mouillee, a state game area and coastal wetlands in Monroe County, Mich., with Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.), state officials, and other stakeholders, where he will focus on Great Lakes issues.

It is unclear if Wheeler will speak with EPA vehicles lab staff about the Trump administration’s proposal to weaken federal fuel economy standards for model years 2021 through 2026, which the agency released jointly with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Aug. 2. Documents released Aug. 14 show Ann Arbor technical staff objected to portions of NHTSA’s cost and safety analysis underpinning the proposal.

The behind-the-scenes fight underscores that EPA technical staff were largely cut out of the process to develop the fuel economy proposal.

“I know for a fact there were no technical working meetings” between the EPA and NHTSA career staffs, Jeff Alson, a former senior engineer who worked on the fuel economy standards in the EPA’s Ann Arbor lab, told Bloomberg Environment. Alson retired in April after four decades at the EPA.

‘Problematic Elements’

The EPA in mid-June said its own analysis contradicted the numbers NHTSA had produced. Freezing the fuel economy requirements at 2020 levels as the administration proposed would increase annual highway fatalities and the fatality rate per miles driven, the EPA said in a mid-June memo sent by Bill Charmley, director of the assessment and standards division of the EPA’s transportation shop, to several White House budget office officials.

Those changes “were achieved solely by correcting some erroneous and otherwise problematic elements of the model’s logic and algorithms,” the EPA memo added.

Wheeler, nonetheless, has defended the proposal’s assumptions. In one of his first television interviews, Wheeler told Boris Epshteyn, chief political analyst at Sinclair Broadcast Group and a former Trump aide, the agencies’ plans would “save over a thousand lives a year.”

“So this is really an important regulation, important standard, for the American consumer, and we really anticipate more new cars will be sold because the prices will be slightly lower, and when new cars are sold they’re safer and they’re cleaner for the environment,” Wheeler added.

To contact the reporter on this story: Abby Smith in Washington at asmith@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at rdaigle@bloombergenvironment.com

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