YPSILANTI — President Donald Trump on Wednesday granted automakers a wish they have been pushing hard for over the past year — a signal that tougher fuel-economy standards and greenhouse gas emission rules slated to go into effect between 2021 and 2025 might be relaxed.
Trump announced that the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are reinstating a “mid-term evaluation” of those standards for the auto industry.
“It was necessary because the standards were set far into the future,” Trump said. “If the standards threaten auto jobs, then common sense changes could have — and should have — been made.”
The move prompted immediate criticism from environmental groups, who say Trump and the automotive industry want to back away from regulations that reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil and a commitment to slow down climate change.
Anna Stefanopoulou, professor of mechanical engineering and director of the University of Michigan Automotive Research Center, said she worries that the Trump administration is being steered wrong “by a segment of the industry that is after quick returns.”
But automakers who met with Trump briefly in private before the president spoke publicly at a former bomber factory at Willow Run said they are only looking for more reasonable regulations that recognize today’s market realities. Gas prices have been lower than forecast for years and demand for electric and hybrid vehicles have not materialized as expected.
During his speech at Willow Run, which opens later this year s a testing site for self-driving cars to be called the American Center for Mobility, Trump criticized the EPA’s decision to leave the current regulations unchanged.
Automakers had agreed to the regulations in 2011 during Barack Obama’s first term as president, but set up the review process in case technology did not develop as fast as hoped.
The EPA in January decided that the greenhouse gas regulations should remain in place because automakers have proven they have the ability to meet the standards. It completed the review days before Trump was to take office, even though it had until April 2018 to complete the process.
NHTSA, which regulates Corporate Average Fuel Economy, or CAFE, standards, is still reviewing those regulations but has been asked by the Trump administration to work with the EPA “to use a data-driven process…according to its original timetable.”
The agreement Obama announced in 2011 with major automakers would nearly double fuel efficiency standards to 54.5 m.p.g., which the administration said would save motorists $1.7 trillion in fuel costs over the life of the vehicles but cost the auto industry about $200 billion to comply with over 13 years.
The automotive industry envisioned back then is a far cry from the industry that has emerged today, however. Automakers have developed cars and trucks that are far more fuel efficient than the vehicles sold a decade ago. But gas prices have remained far lower than expected and consumer demand for electric vehicles is nowhere near what regulators predicted back then.
Industry applauds new review
Trump and the auto industry have been critical of the EPA’s decision, announced seven days before Trump took office in January, to keep the existing standards in place before taking more time to review them.
“I think whatever the outcome is, I will feel better about it,” Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne said after Trump spoke. “I mean, somebody actually, short-circuited the system itself. That was not the intent of the 2025 rules. I was there. We agreed that 2017 and 2018 would be used for a thorough mid-term review with the full participation of the auto industry.”
Jim Lentz, CEO of Toyota North America, said the industry doesn’t intend to back away from a long-term commitment to continually make cars that can drive farther on less fuel and to continue work to reduce emissions.
“I don’t think the industry is going to say, we want to eliminate sensible regulations, or do something unrealistic,” Lentz said. “What the industry is saying is let’s take a look at what those assumptions were in the beginning and where are we today.”
Auto Alliance, the industry’s top lobbying group, applauded the Trump administration’s decisions to resume a “data-driven” review process.
“By restarting this review, analysis rather than politics will produce a final decision consistent with the process we all agreed to under ‘One National Program’ for (greenhouse gases) and fuel economy standards,” Auto Alliance President and CEO Mitch Bainwol said in a statement.
“A retreat…on climate change’
The Natural Resources Defense Council, an international nonprofit environmental organization, argued that weaker emission standards are actually bad for the industry because regulations encourage innovation.
“The current standards helped the auto companies move from bankruptcy to profitability, and there is no reason they cannot be met,” said Rhea Suh, president of the council. “This is just another part of President Trump’s retreat from action on climate change.”
U.S. Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, said it’s critical that the United States continue to invest in heavily in mobility and fuel efficient technology for the auto industry.
“In 2011, President Obama led an effort with automakers, EPA, NHTSA and California to establish an ambitious program to improve fuel economy standards and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Dingell said. “It was the right thing to do for the environment and in making sure middle class jobs were protected. As a result, automakers have made great strides and remain committed.”
Said Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak, said, “What’s at stake is the clear progress our auto makers have made in increasing fuel efficiency and reducing greenhouse gas emissions under a national standard and regulatory process.”
“Buy American — Hire American”
Trump’s appearance was about more than just automotive regulations. Trump’s speech included a heavy dose of his “America First,” message.
Speaking in front of a red,k white and blue banner that said, “Buy American — Hire American,” Trump said, “The era of economic surrender for the United States is over.”
He reiterated plans to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement and touted jobs that he said automakers have promised to add since he was elected.
“Buy American and hire American. It’s not just a motto, it’s a pledge,” Trump said.
Trump touts auto jobs
Trump also touted a number of jobs announcements made by the Detroit Three since he took office.
“Already, we are seeing jobs coming back,” Trump said, referencing jobs announced in January by General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler.
However, auto executives have previously said all of the jobs announcements mentioned by Trump on Wednesday were either discussed long before he took office or were possible because of changing market conditions.
Gov. Rick Snyder, who has talked frequently about how Michigan’s economy has benefited from free trade with Canada and Mexico, took some friendly ribbing from Trump.
The president called over Snyder over for a photo during the private meeting, saying “even though you didn’t endorse me,” to awkward laughter, according to a White House press pool report.
Asked about Trump’s oft-repeated call to renegotiate NAFTA with Canada and Mexico, Snyder said, “I appreciate his comments about how we need to look out for America. We do. Hopefully we can do that in a fashion where we understand we have very close neighbors, particularly Canada right across the border here, and we want to make sure we continue to have good relations.”
Workers thrilled to see the president
Ford, GM and Chrysler bused hundreds of workers to the rally so they could get a chance to see the president talk about the automotive industry.
While that decision caused a backlash by some UAW leaders, the workers who attended said they were excited to see Trump speak.
“I think that it’s great that he is here today,” said Larry LaBrana, 53, of Sterling Heights. “I am interested in what he has to say about the automotive industry and how he can help us. Any help would be great. I would like to see things stay here in America, keep American jobs for American workers.”
LaBrana, an engineer and union steward for UAW Local 412 who works at Fiat Chrylsler’s Sterling Stamping plant, declined to say whether he voted for Trump but said he supports Trump now.
“I am supportive of our president-elect. He won the election. As Americans, we are supposed to support our president,” LaBrana said. “That is our patriotic duty.”
Bruce Sims, wearing a red “Make America Great Again,” hat said he voted for Obama twice but decided to support Trump because of his emphasis on jobs and cutting the budget.
“We are hear to support the president,” said Sims, 57, who also works for Fiat Chrysler. “I am here to see what Trump can do.”
Sims said he is happy to see Trump take steps to reduce automotive regulations.
Free Press reporters John Gallagher and Keith Matheny contributed to this report.
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