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EPA Moves to Uphold High Fuel Economy Standards

CARS.COM — Relatively cheap gas may have pushed shoppers toward SUVs and trucks, but government regulations will continue to push the industry toward higher fuel efficiency over the next decade.

Related: It's Official: Higher Fuel Economy Standards Set for 2025

The EPA announced today that it will propose no changes to federal standards that ramp up gas mileage requirements into the mid-2020s across the auto industry. It solidifies a 2012 initiative from the Obama administration to increase fuel economy standards to 54.5 mpg by 2025, up from about half of that at the time. (That's in Corporate Average Fuel Economy figures, however. Window-sticker mileage would end up in the high 30s.)

"It's clear from the extensive technical record that this program will remain affordable and effective," EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said today in a statement.

It's the latest step after a required midterm evaluation that considered whether any changes were needed in the final four years (2022-25) of the CAFE program, which originally spanned the 2012-25 model years. The EPA concluded that automakers are well-equipped to meet standards for fuel efficiency — and thus carbon-dioxide emissions — through CAFE's 2025 conclusion. The industry had even outperformed those standards from 2012-15, the EPA noted.

Getting Ahead of Trump?

A public comment period runs until Dec. 30, after which McCarthy can make a final determination on the standards. If a determination follows shortly, it would come months before the original deadline — April 1, 2018 — set by regulators. That signals a possible move by the Obama administration's EPA to cement the program before President-elect Donald Trump takes office.

Although Trump didn't talk much about fuel economy standards before the election, his pick for the EPA's transition team is Myron Ebell, a director at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and self-described dissenter of "global warming alarmists." (Alarmist or not, a clear majority of scientists agree that global warming is real and caused by human activity.)

CAFE's midterm evaluation drew plenty of opinions. The EPA says it received more than 200,000 public comments after it released a 1,217-page draft report in July on its technical assessment of the program. After Trump's election win, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a group that represents 11 automakers, told the president-elect that the assessment over-projected certain technological efficiencies and inadequately considered certain market realities. The alliance went on to recommend that the incoming administration halt any proposals on 2022-25 standards until the Trump administration can find a "pathway forward."

Today's announcement could blunt that recommendation.

"The EPA intends to rush out a preliminary determination [on CAFE] before the new administration takes office," the alliance told in a statement. "The evidence is abundantly clear that with low gas prices, consumers are not choosing the cars necessary to comply with increasingly unrealistic standards. Wishing this fact away does no one any favors, and getting this wrong has serious implications."

Future Outcomes Uncertain

Consumer and environmental groups, by contrast, lauded today's announcement. Jack Gillis, a spokesman for the Consumer Federation of America, said the average household spends some $1,500 in annual fuel costs, and the fuel-economy standards "go a long way to protecting both consumer pocketbooks and U.S. car company competitiveness." And Luke Tonachel, director of the Clean Vehicles and Fuels Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, noted that "automakers have the technology to meet the standards" and "there's no evidence we should slow down."

How much can President-elect Trump roll things back? That remains to be seen.

"Time will tell," Stephanie Brinley, a senior analyst at IHS Automotive, told us. "If there is a change, it is more likely to be a delay than less strict emissions regulations."

Regulators in California, who have their own mandates for automakers, have plenty of say, too. But as far as overall mileage regulations go, automakers — and consumers — shouldn't expect long-term deregulation. Stricter regulations will come at some point, Brinley noted.

"A delay may enable automakers to adjust the pace of development, but at the end of the day, more strict regulations are still likely to come eventually," she said. "Not to mention that there is no guarantee that whatever administration that follows Trump — whether in four or eight years — may take a different stance."